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Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) won the men’s elite world road championship Sunday, jumping clear with a brutish attack on the Cauberg above Valkenburg, Netherlands.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway) finished second and Alejandro Valverde (Spain) was third.
“I was dreaming for a long time,” said Gilbert. “The whole team did a really good job. I was really well placed at the bottom of the Cauberg.”
Gilbert arrived for the final time onto the Cauberg, where he had twice won the Amstel Gold Race, sitting with three teammates behind Italians Luca Paolini and Vincenzo Nibali and Valverde. When Nibali struck out early on the climb, Gilbert closed onto his wheel. After a 20-second burst, Nibali could go no longer and sat in the saddle, looking under his right arm; that was enough of a window for Gilbert to run away onto the more moderate, upper portion of the climb.
“I go in the big ring in the end on this sort of climb and I can make the difference doing that,” said Gilbert. “I’m strong enough to do that.”
The Belgian from just outside of nearby Liège was alone and pushed on solo to the finish, finishing four seconds clear of Boasson Hagen.
Inside the final five of ten laps around the Valkenburg circuit, a number of chase groups formed and made their way across to the original 11-man breakaway, which included Americans Alex Howes and Timmy Duggan, as well Dario Cataldo (Italy), Maxime Bouet and Jerome Coppel (France), Pablo Lastras (Spain), Winner Anacona Gomez (Colombia), Fabricio Ferrari Barcelo (Uruguay), Vladimir Isaichev (Russia), Luca Mezgec (Slovenia) and Gatis Smukulis (Latvia).
Accelerations from Dutchman Robert Gesink and Spain’s Alberto Contador created dangerous splits in the peloton and inside of four laps to go and lead group of more than 25 riders pressed on with nearly a minute advantage.
With two to go, Australia and Belgium glued the front of the race back together. Andrew Talansky (USA) attacked hard on the Bemelerberg climb, drawing out Britain’s Ian Stannard, and the two pushed out to almost half-a-minute’s advantage on the approach to Valkenburg for the penultimate trip up the Cauberg. Talansky faltered on the climb, however, and the Nibali-led peloton rode over both of the attackers.
Nibali’s pace split the peloton and he pushed hard toward the finish for the bell lap. Joaquim Rodríguez (Spain), John Degenkolb (Germany) and Thomas Voeckler (France) were each there. Gilbert sat second wheel and was not willing to pull through, however. The Italian waved his arm at the Belgian, but by the time the eight-rider group organized, the remnants of the peloton were bearing down on them. The breakaway ballooned to 25, then 40 and more.
The bunch was all together for one final run around the Limburg circuit.
Italy, riding for Nibali, Great Britain, riding for Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, and Spain, riding for Rodríguez, each went to the front of the bunch to drive a breakaway-busting pace on the final lap. Dani Moreno then Alberto Contador sat on the point for the Spanish, with the Vuelta a España champ leading over the top of the Bemelerberg for the final time.
The key players were all there. Luca Paolini shepherded Nibali four wheels from the front. Simon Gerrans was on the right side of the group with Australian teammate David Tanner. Next to them, Valverde and Rodríguez sat, remaining calm. Gilbert rode in the shadow of teammates Jurgen Roelandts and Bjorn Leukemans.
The tension built as the bunch rolled hard into Valkenburg for the final ascent of the Cauberg, where Gilbert, Gerrans and Rodríguez had each finished on the podium at the Amstel Gold Race. This finale was different, however, with 1.7km of moderate road beyond the summit of the climb.
Paolini led through the left-hand corner onto the Cauberg and hit out hard, climbing out of the saddle. The moment he slowed, Nibali let loose with what would prove to be too early an attack. A tailwind carried the riders up the finish climb and when Gilbert burst past the Italian, there was little doubt he would carry his advantage to the finish.
Boasson Hagen came from behind in the bunch to chase the French-speaking Belgian from the hills south of Liège. He couldn’t close the gap, however, and Gilbert was able to celebrate inside the final 200 meters.
“When Gilbert attacked, I was not able to jump on his wheel; I was a little far behind,” said Boasson Hagen. “I hoped that other riders would work to plug the hole. I thought Valverde would. Given the circumstances, I must be satisfied with the silver medal.”
Valverde followed in for bronze.
“I’m happy with the bronze medal,” he said. “It wasn’t possible to follow Gilbert when he made his break. We (the other riders) just didn’t get it together after that. There was no collaboration between any of us because we were not far from the line and each of us had a medal in our heads.”
The win erased the memory of of a classics campaign in which he failed to defend any of his three wins — at Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. In fact, Gilbert’s first win of the season came just weeks ago when he took two stages of the Vuelta a España. The world championship was one win missing from the Belgian’s palmarès, however, and he rode to a resounding victory on Sunday.