Flanders ’17: Gilbert Steals The Show!
Race Report: There can’t be a better sight for a Belgian to see the National champion cross the finish line of the Ronde van Vlaanderen first and solo. Philippe Gilbert made sure the beer sales on Sunday would go through the roof.
“In all my years as a rider and a commentator I do not recall anyone putting in such a huge performance in this race”, those were the words of the legendary Sean Kelly as he looked on as Philippe Gilbert conquered the bergs of Flanders solo, after making a gutsy long-range attack 90kms out from the finish. Greg Van Avermaet and Nikki Terpstra would round out the podium, but not before a dramatic crash for Sagan and Van Avermaet had cycling fans everywhere holding their breath.
It took time, but finally Quick-Step played their cards to almost perfection. Philippe Gilbert, who has been building his form in emphatic fashion in recent weeks, has finally announced his return to the very top of the pelotons hierarchy. Many had speculated that we had seen the best years of Gilbert but that was all about to change in an afternoon of dusty, cobbled roads, crazed Belgian crowds and enthralling racing.
The Ronde van Vlaanderen started in glorious sunshine at a fairly pedestrian pace with the first two hours of racing being covered at an average speed of just over 40kmph. An 8-man group went from the gun and were allowed to build up a considerable lead of over 11 minutes at its peak.
Meanwhile back in the peloton the two glowing favorites coming into this race, Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan stayed tucked in on the wheels in preparation for the fireworks to come later on as their teams BMC and Bora-Hansgrohe swapped turns on the front.
Katusha’s disastrous classics campaign looked to be heading from bad to worse as the main bunch approached the Kwaremont climb for the first time, and we saw Kristoff chasing hard off the back of the Peloton. He would later re-join and be off the front some kilometers later in what would be a pivotal move to the days overall results.
American hearts fluttered briefly as Taylor Phinney escaped from the peloton over the top of the Eikenberg with 120km remaining, but he would soon be reeled in only to crash heavily moments later.
The real action of the day kicked off some 90km from the finish line on the iconic Muur, which made its return to the race albeit farther from the finish than in previous years.
Today was always going to be about one man. Tom Boonen has been Flanders favorite son for many years and today was to be his last big race on Flemish soil. It was to be very much a bittersweet day for Tom. Quick-Step fired the first real shot of the day on the Muur when Boonen powered up the iconic climb splitting the peloton to pieces with just 13 other riders able to follow. Surprisingly neither Sagan or Van Avermaet were anywhere to be seen. This move would prove decisive.
Present in this stellar group were Gilbert, Boonen, Kristoff and Rowe, the group also containing Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac), Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie), Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo). BMC and Bora-Hansgrohe were the two big noticeably absentees here.
This group began to collaborate well, slowly putting a lead of over 1 minute into the chasing Peloton led by Orica-Scott and BMC. As they approached the Kwaremont it was Tom Boonen who was forcing the pace in the breakaway, seemingly setting up what was to be the winning show of strength from his teammate and compatriot.
Gilbert showed his immense form on the third ascent of the Kwaremont where he crested with a lead of 22 seconds over his breakaway companions. It was touch and go as to whether or not he would wait for this group, as they were still over 55kms from the finish line. A confident Gilbert was taking no passengers today though and began a solo assault on the remaining bergs in his path.
Behind; the days were numbered for the chasing group as Luke Rowe and Sep Vanmarcke both crashed just as the peloton led by BMC were upon them.
It was then a case of Gilbert versus the world as he ploughed on solo, holding a cautious lead of 55 seconds on what was now the group of 25 favorites behind.
This gap would remain steady until 35kms remaining where Sagan, Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen showed their teeth on the Taaienberg, forcing themselves away from the splintered group and eating into Gilbert’s advantage which dwindled to 30 seconds.
Boonen’s last time up the Taaienberg was to be a disastrous one with the three time champion having mechanical trouble forcing him to take an agonizingly slow bike change. He would never rejoin the front of the race.
Just as it began to look like Gilbert’s lone effort would be neutralized, with 17km to go disaster struck for the powerful chasing group of three. Sagan, who was spearheading the trio of Van Avermaet and Naesen collided with a spectator barrier and came down hard on his right shoulder, taking Naesen and Van Avermaet down with him.
Van Avermaet quickly remounted and continued but the damage had been done as Gilbert continued to power away into the distance.
In the closing kilometers it was Gilbert’s face that told the story of the day. His grimace became more and more robust and his style further labored as the seconds ticked away from his advantage on the newly formed chasing trio Van Avermaet, Dylan Van Baarle as well as Gilbert´s teammate Nikki Terpstra tagging along at the back.
Lack of cooperation in this group as well as Gilbert’s persistency meant that victory was all but sealed as the closing kilometers ticked down.
In the closing meters the grimace of Gilbert turned to a smile as he dismounted his bike crossing the line and threw it over his head like a trophy and was deservedly crowned the King of Flanders.
Arguably the crash of Sagan helped Gilbert’s move succeed as there was a noticeable lack of firepower in the chasing group. However, the history books will certainly tell a different story – Gilbert put in the ride of his life, with the Belgian champions jersey on his shoulders. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that, even for Sean Kelly.
De Ronde Van Vlaanderen Result:
1. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Quick-Step Floors in 6:23:45
2. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC at 0:28
3. Niki Terpstra (Ned) Quick-Step Floors
4. Dylan Van Baarle (Ned) Cannondale-Drapac
5. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha-Alpecin at 0:52
6. Sacha Modolo (Ita) UAE Team Emirates
7. John Degenkolb (Ger) Trek-Segafredo
8. Filippo Pozzato (Ita) Wilier Triestina
9. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Direct Energie
10. Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bahrain-Merida
11. Michael Valgren Andersen (Den) Astana
12. Luke Durbridge (Aus) Orica-Scott
13. Matteo Trentin (Ita) Quick-Step Floors
14. Yoann Offredo (Fra) Wanty-Groupe Gobert
15. Gianni Moscon (Ita) Sky
16. Scott Thwaites (GB) Dimension Data
17. Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto Soudal
18. Nelson Oliveira (Por) Movistar
19. Fabio Felline (Ita) Trek-Segafredo at 1:01
20. André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Soudal at 2:29
21. Baptiste Planckaert (Bel) Katusha-Alpecin
22. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Dimension Data
23. Oliver Naesen (Bel) AG2R-La Mondiale at 2:32
24. Alberto Bettiol (Ita) Cannondale-Drapac
25. Alexander Edmonson (Aus) Orica-Scott at 3:30.