It has to be the image of the cycling season so far. Philippe Gilbert standing solo on the finishing line of the Tour of Flanders in the Belgian champions jersey with his bike held high above his head, victorious. It was everything the locals could want from such a race. And what a race it was. It always is. But we don’t usually get an individual performance quite like that. We don’t usually get such drama from so far out.
The Muur-Kapelmuur is one of the most famous climbs in the Tour of Flanders. In recent years though it hasn’t featured due to its location on a new route, but that changed for 2017. The climb was back in, but early in the race. Too far out from the finish to factor, or so we thought. They hit it with 95km to go, and but for the forlorn hopes up the road, the pack was still together. As they hit it, Gilbert brought his Quickstep team to the front. Rivals, such as Sagan and Van Avermaet hung back. Too early, right? Wrong.
Quickstep hit the climb hard. Teammates Tom Boonen and Gilbert looked at one another and gave a nod. The power went down and the race blew wide open. Over the top a gap had opened, but again it seemed to soon to matter. It would likely come back together or those behind would bridge across. Gilbert, Boonen et al would sit up and save their matches for later. But nobody knew how many matches Gilbert carried. With so long still to go, Gilbert pushed on, urging the group to work. And the group was dangerous. Sep Vanmarcke was there, so was Alexander Kristoff. Luke Rowe, Jasper Stuyven and a cluster of others were also present. Sagan and Van Avermaet were not.
For the next 40km they pressed on, led more often than not by Gilbert. It now seemed as though he was working for a magical Boonen-Flanders send-off. They caught the early break with 67km left and at the time held a 1:10 advantage over the Sagan pack. Still, too early to panic, but very much time to chase. As they hit the Oude Kwaremont for the second time, with 55km left, the gap was down to half a minute. It was now or never, and Gilbert went. It was a powerful effort up the climb; the gap began to stretch and soon the elastic snapped and Gilbert was alone. The impetus of the group that he was with faltered when Vanmarcke brought down Rowe in a crash, and on the Paterberg Sagan and Van Avermaet bridged across. Now it was one man against the rest.
His lead hovering between 50 seconds and a minute. His effort was sustaining but the debate began to rage among fans about whether he could hold on? Given how long he had been on the attack, leading the initial split and then going alone, and given the hard climbs to come, he was certain to blow. Right? Wrong.
I left the sofa for a moment with to put on the kettle with Gilbert still 55 seconds to the good. I was gone half that time but returned to see Boonen standing at the side of the road and Sagan on the attack. If the Quickstep plan had been for Boonen to counter any catch of Gilbert, it ended here. A chain problem forced a bike change and it wasn’t much better. His dream retirement now goes down to his final race at Paris-Roubaix next weekend.
As for Sagan, he had reduced the chasing pack to a handful and still the pursuit across Flanders continued. Over the Kruisberg the gap still held. Gilbert looked mighty.
On the Kwaremont it was time to act once more and Sagan made his next move. A powerful attack…and then he crashed. As sudden as the sentence itself. One second the world champion is powering on the front, leaving rivals in his wake, going in hunt of the Belgian champion, the next, he’s down. The only two who could follow him, Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen, came down too. Nobody was quite sure how it happened though it later transpired that Sagan clipped a jacket slung over the barrier and in doing so his wheel turned into the foot of the barrier. It was a huge fall and the world champions head hit the cobbled ground hard. He got up, but the race had long since left him behind. It might be easy to blame the fan, but Sagan was riding so close to the barrier in search of a smoother line and these are the risks of riding so close to where a hoard of excited fans stand.
Van Avermaet was up quick and chasing but by now Gilbert looked safe. He turned into the wind for the ride into Oudenaarde but he was able to hold on and walk across the line with his bike above his head in glory.
Debate will rage about whether Sagan could have led a chase that caught Gilbert? We’ll never know. Gilbert was almost a minute ahead when they crashed. He won by 29 seconds and that included the celebration. Van Avermaet must have lost 20-30 seconds in the crash, but how much did Gilbert measure his effort towards the end, using his lead to his advantage rather than pushing on and risking a late blow?
What we do know is that Gilbert’s effort was mighty. He caught his closest rivals napping with that initial move on the Muur and he proved all doubters wrong by bidding out for solo glory so far from home. In winning the Tour of Flanders he joins Eddy Merckx, Moreno argentin and Rik Van Looy in winning Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Tour of Lombardia and the Worlds in their career. This may have been the highlight ride of his fine career.