An all-in attack 55 kilometers away from the finish and a ride for the history books helped the Belgian Champion conquer the 101st edition.
Philippe Gilbert returned to the Ronde van Vlaanderen for the first time in five years and in doing so he forever left his mark on the race which this year celebrated its 101st edition, taking his maiden triumph here and becoming the first rider in two decades to inscribe a cobbled Monument and an Ardennes one in his palmares.
The Belgian Champion, who joined Quick-Step Floors at the end of last season, attacked with more than 50 kilometers to go, on the long and iconic Oude Kwaremont, leaving behind the group which had emerged on another legendary climb, Muur-Kapelmuur, with 95 kilometers remaining, where Tom Boonen upped the tempo as they rode over the hill’s steepest climb, forcing a split that turned out to be decisive.
The newly-formed group contained three Quick-Step Floors riders – Boonen, Philippe Gilbert and Matteo Trentin – who were joined by eleven other men. The margin was a small one, of around 15 seconds, but the trio quickly moved to the front and did some huge turns, increasing the lead to 40 seconds ahead of Kanarieberg. Behind, the peloton began to chase, but the Quick-Step Floors boys relentlessly continued to pull away, with Tom Boonen – who made his 15th and final outing at De Ronde – prominent at the front, keen on keeping his promise of bowing out in style from Flanders, a race which he conquered three times.
With 55 kilometers left, on the second ascent of Oude Kwaremont, the gap began to come down, and Philippe Gilbert decided it was the right time for him to surge clear on the climb first used by the race in 1974, so without going out of the saddle, he put some daylight between him and the others, pushing ahead solo, while behind, his teammates dutifully marked the rivals who tried to chase him down.
Not even the Koppenberg (600 meters, 22% maximum gradient) – one of the route’s most punishing ascents – could bring the Belgian Champion’s daring move to a halt, as his monstrous ride helped him carry a lead of one minute into the last hour of racing.
On the Taaienberg, the day’s 15th ascent, just as the bunch was making contact with the first group, disaster struck for Tom, who needed a bike change because of a mechanical. On the same climb, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) attacked and started his pursuit of Philippe; the world champion was followed by Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Oliver Naesen (AG2R), with Matteo Trentin joining them after the hill was crested in order to keep an eye on their plans. Despite the firepower that group possessed, all they could do by the bottom of the last ascent of Oude Kwaremont was to take back ten seconds.
As Gilbert continued to stomp on the pedals at the front and get closer and closer to the finish, Naesen, Sagan and Van Avermaet crashed with around 20 kilometers left, but they all remounted and got back in the race. The group reshuffled, so by the time they left Paterberg behind, three men were part of the first chasing group: Dylan Van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac), Van Avermaet and a very strong Niki Terpstra, who bridged across on Paterberg, the last hill of the day. Van Avermaet and Van Baarle exchanged turns and tried to bring the leader of the race back on the long and flat roads to Oudenaarde, but all they managed was to reduce the margin by 20 seconds.
It was only in the final kilometer that Philippe Gilbert took some time to look over his shoulder, and seeing the trio was a long way back, he decided to celebrate in style his fourth career victory in a Monument, by raising his Specialized bike over his head and crossing the line in the applause of thousands of passionate cycling fans, who witnessed the first win of a Belgian Champion in Ronde van Vlaanderen since 2008, one which came at the end of a 55km solo move, the longest at the race in nearly five decades.
The first chasers arrived 29 seconds later, and Greg Van Avermaet sprinted to second, whilst Niki Terpstra rounded out the podium (for his second career top 3 at the race), giving Quick-Step Floors another reason to be happy at the end of day.
“We won as a team today and everyone deserves to be on the podium, so a big thanks goes to all the guys, because they did a huge workload.”
“After Tom initiated that move on the Muur, we continued to push and decided to go full gas on the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. Tom did a big pull just ahead of the hill, on the asphalt, I took over as the road began to rise and soon noticed I had a small gap; from that moment on, I never looked back again. Many people thought I was crazy to attack 55 kilometers out, myself included, but I didn’t go that hard, because I was aware the final 15 kilometers were very tough, so I kept some energy which I knew would prove very useful for that last part of the race”, said Philippe Gilbert, only the second Walloon rider in history to triumph at De Ronde.
Joining Quick-Step Floors ahead of this season gave the 34-year-old the possibility to return after a five-year hiatus to Ronde van Vlaanderen, a race which he’s very fond of and at which he podiumed twice on the old course. Gilbert, who lined out at the start coming off the back of a spectacular overall victory in Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, credited his pre-season preparation as the key behind his magnificent success.
“I felt good since winter, when I trained with the team in Denia. The motivation was high, as I knew I still had it in me and Quick-Step Floors was the right team to be in. Then, going into Omloop, the form was there, but you couldn’t see that on TV because I was caught behind a crash and had to chase, and continued to feel stronger with every race I did”, explained Philippe after his epic victory.
The day was a historical one for the Belgian Champion, who became only the fourth ever rider to win during his career the World Championships, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and Il Lombardia, a tremendous feat: “When I approached the final kilometer, I looked behind and saw the chasers were still a long way back and thought of a nice way of celebrating my success. That’s why I raised my bike over my head, because it was an important part of my victory. It was a really special moment and I’m really proud of how I managed today’s race and of what I achieved!”
Philippe Gilbert’s remarkable triumph and Niki Terpstra’s third place at the finish in Oudenaarde helped Quick-Step Floors – who racked up the 15th Monument win since the squad’s inception in 2003 – extend its advantage in the World Tour team classification, which the outfit managed by Patrick Lefevere leads since last week’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, where Yves Lampaert took the spoils.
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele