Cycling insiders say that Philippe Gilbert’s Tour of Flanders victory on Sunday in Oudenaarde, coming after a solo 55.5km ride, ranks with the best of all time.
Distance and substance created a lasting mix in the race, which celebrated 101 editions in 2017.
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Gilbert emerged from a group that splintered under team-mate Tom Boonen’s power on the re-introduced Muur climb at 95km remaining. Gilbert, with the red, yellow and black Belgian champion’s jersey, then “accidentally” rode free on the Oude Kwaremont.
“Best Flanders win? I think so, you have to almost back to the time of Eddy Merckx. Gilbert went from the favourites’ group and just hammered everyone,” Trek-Segafredo sports director, Dirk Demol said.
“He went from far, he’s never afraid to go. That’s how he races when he’s good. He has a strong team with five or six riders to win, so he knows he has to go first. If a team-mate went first, then he’d have to wait.”
Gilbert gave Wallonia it’s first Flanders win in 30 years, since Claude Criquielion in 1987.
“He’s from Wallonia, yes, but they like him a lot here in Flanders,” added Demol. “The Flemish love riders who have the balls to go from very far.”
Cycling great Eddy Merckx rode solo to his first victory in 1969. That win stands out as one of the longest solo rides in recent memory, 73km. For his second and last Flanders win, he rode away at 104km to go, but with another rider for company.
“The greatest? I’m not going to say that, but one of the biggest victories, yes,” Quick-Step sports director Wilfried Peeters said of his rider. “After a breakaway of more than 50km, not too many riders can do that. Not too many have made [such a] victory.”
Italian Fiorenzo Magni is one of six who hold a record three Tour of Flanders titles. That list also includes Tom Boonen, who rode his last Flanders this year. To win his third Flanders, Magni attacked with 73km remaining.
“We expected Quick-Step to go early, but I didn’t really think it from Gilbert because he was the strongest of them.
“This race remains a nightmare, placing second twice as a rider and again twice second as a director. When I placed second the first time, I’d gone from 60km and only Johan Museeuw pulled me back in the end.
“It’s no guarantee that if you have courage it pays off, you need numbers in the team to make it work.”
“I was a team-mate with Moreno Argentin, he went with Rudy Dhaenens from far off, 60km. You don’t see these wins often. Hats off to Gilbert. He pulled quiet a show.”
Lorenzo Lapage stood behind his team bus after the race. He directs team Orica-Scott, which had their star Jens Keukeleire call off Flanders after falling sick on the eve of the race.
“All the guys who win Flanders are great riders, but the way Gilbert did it…” Lapage said. “He had a really strong team around him, but you have to do it on your own. 55km solo. Only great champions can do that.”
“It has to be said, this is Merckxian” said Belgian cyclocross star Sven Nys. “How many times we have seen this in recent years in the Tour of Flanders?”
“Chapeau Monsieur Philippe, what a number,” added the great himself, Eddy Merckx. “If you put in such an effort and win, then you prove you’re a true sportsman.”
Merckx said regarding Peter Sagan’s crash with Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen, “It’s simple: one dead, the other is his bread. Philippe is the deserved winner. In cycling you should not count, but you should go for it. Gilbert prefers to fight, and isn’t that the beauty of this sport?”