Philippe Gilbert wins 2011 Clásica San Sebastián

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) wins the Clásica San Sebastián with a bold attack in the final kilometers.

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2011 Clasica San Sebastian, podium
Philippe Gilbert adds another classic to his collection.

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain (VN) — Nothing can stop Philippe Gilbert, not even jet lag.

Gilbert flew to Spain on Friday night after a post-Tour criterium in Belgium, but didn’t get to his hotel room until 2 a.m. Running on barely six hours’ sleep, the Omega Pharma-Lotto star uncorked an audacious attack with just under 4km to go, powering away from an elite group of 10 riders to drive home an impressive solo victory in the 234km Clásica San Sebastián.

“I haven’t been getting much sleep lately,” Gilbert joked following his dramatic effort. “After the Tour, I had a big party with the team and then I’ve been hitting criteriums in Belgium and another one in Norway, staying up until 1 to 2 a.m. most nights. I guess I am used to the Spanish timetable by now.”

Gilbert used his tactical acumen to make up for any sense of drowsiness he might have had coming into the nearly six-hour race over the green hills in Spain’s Basque Country.

With Omega Pharma-Lotto teammate Jelle Vanendert part of a 10-man group that pulled clear on the day’s final climb at the second-category Alto de Arkale with 15km to go, Gilbert could sit back and choose just the right moment to make an attack. And when he did, he didn’t look back.

“The situation was ideal for me,” he said. “I had Vanendert with me. (Carlos) Barredo attacked and we kept him at 8 to 12 seconds, not panicking. I could relax a little from behind and save my strength for the right moment. I was saving my legs for the finale.”

When he attacked with 3.8km to go, Gilbert said, “I got a little gap, maybe 10 meters. (Joaquin) Rodríguez and (Samuel) Sánchez tried to go with me, but I had 10 meters on them. I just put my head down and went full steam. I didn’t look back. In those 600-700 meters, everything was decided.”

Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo came through second at 12 seconds back while Belgian compatriot Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) crossed the line third at 14 seconds back to round out the podium.

Barredo, a winner here two years ago, said no one could respond when Gilbert attacked.

“I attacked and attacked and attacked all day, because I knew Gilbert would be strong in the finale,” said Barredo, who opened up his aggression on the Jaizkibel climb with 35km to go. “When Gilbert attacked in the end, I just didn’t have the legs to follow. None of us did.”

Jaizkibel plays race-maker

There was a celebratory mood at the start line in San Sebastián as Basque fans crowded in to press the flesh with some of cycling’s biggest names. After nearly four weeks of continuous rain along the Basque coast, a warm summer sun and light northerly breezes welcomed 161 starters for the 31st edition of the Basque classic.

Most expected a rider hot off the Tour de France to win. One rider who didn’t go to the Tour was Denis Menchov (Geox), who told VeloNews he’s using the Clásica to prepare for the Vuelta a España.

“It’s a hard race so I do no expect to have the legs to win,” said Menchov, who later crossed the line with the second chase group in 33rd at 2:08. “I will race the Vuelta a Burgos and then the Vuelta. I hope to have the legs to challenge for the GC at the Vuelta, but I know I will suffer today.”

The day’s main group didn’t take long to form, with six riders chugging clear in the opening 10km. Julian Sánchez (CajaRural), Matt Brammeier (HTC-Highroad), Murilo Fischer (Garmin-Cervélo), Klaas Lodwyck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Eloi Ruiz (Andalucia-Caja Granada) and Karsten Kroon (BMC) pulled away. The gap grew to eight minutes after nearly four hours of racing, and Gilbert was getting bored.

“That was the most difficult part of the race, to tell the truth,” Gilbert later recounted. “We were really going slow in the bunch and I was chatting with friends and having a hard time getting my head in the race. Once the speed started to pick up, I was able to concentrate and I could tell I had good legs.”

The 455-meter Alto de Jaizkibel climb towering over the Bay of Biscay used to be the kingmaker of the Clásica, but its relatively long distance from the finish line — about 35km — often meant that a large group would often hit the Boulevard finishing straight to dispute a sprint. Organizers added a second passage over the Jaizkibel last year in hopes of livening up the action and softening up the legs.

It’s worked, but it’s had an interesting effect on the race. Gilbert said riders can now race less aggressively on the steep, wide-open slopes to the coast wind and wait to play their cards on the final climb at the Alto de Arkale with 15km to go.

“It used to be a lot more nervous when there was just one climb over the Jaizkibel,” Gilbert said. “If you weren’t with the first 30 or so over the top, you would have no chance of winning. Today, I knew I could hang back a little to save my legs because I calculated it would come back with a big group before the Arkale climb.”

Gilbert read the race perfectly. Kroon and Fischer were swept up by the day’s first serious attacks on the second passage up the Jaizkibel, with Samuel Sánchez and Barredo unleashing some accelerations that caused the first serious splits in the bunch. About 30 riders made it with the first critical selection. Among them was Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek), who would later finish sixth on the line.

“Fränk was very good today. He was motivated to race hard today after the Tour,” Leopard-Trek sport director Kim Andersen told VeloNews. “When Gilbert attacked, he didn’t quite have the legs to follow him. If he did, he would have been on the podium. We still made a good race today. We are satisfied.”

Schleck had Leopard-Trek teammate Jakob Fuglsang with him when another classics strongman — two-time Tour of Flanders champion Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil) — attacked on the descent.

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo) stayed with the leaders, but become unhitched when the counterattacks came on the run toward the Arkale climb. A split formed and by the time they cleared the Arkale, there was no one left to chase back if someone missed the move.

“It was a hard one today,” Hejsedal told VeloNews. “We went real hard right before the Arkale and that little group formed. There wasn’t a whole lot of cooperation because most teams had riders up front. There were a lot of attacks after the Jaizkibel because there were a lot of guys still there.

“The hardest moment came on that last climb. I just couldn’t go real deep for that last piece. There was still a good group of guys around us, but no one really wanted to chase it down.”

The power of Gilbert

With 10km to go, a group of 10 opened up a 55-second gap on the Hesjedal group and would battle for the spoils. Vanendert played his role, covering the move by Devolder and then helping keep Barredo on a short leash when he attacked with about 8km to go.

2011 Clasica San Sebastian, Gilbert wins
No one could match Gilbert when he attacked with less than 4km to go.

The Rabobank rider opened up a promising gap, but with nine big names chasing behind, the attack was doomed to fall short. Gilbert looked around the group and knew that he would have a hard time against compatriot Van Avermaet in a bunch sprint, so he decided the best tactic was aggression. And off he went.

“I felt really good after suffering on the Jaizkibel (Cat. 1 climb),” Van Avermaet said. “I was putting everything on my sprint because I knew I was one of the fastest guys in front. But I was also hoping (Samuel) Sanchez and (Fränk) Schleck could close the gap to Gilbert.”

No one could close the gap on Gilbert, who powered across the line to claim the ninth classics win of his career. Gilbert, who won the opening stage at the Tour de France to claim the yellow jersey, said knocking off the Clásica was important.

“This is nothing compared to winning a stage at the Tour, but it’s important to have won here,” he said. “My dream is to win all the classics, so slowly but surely I am ticking them all off.”

Gilbert will have a few more chances this season. Next he’ll race the Eneco Tour, GP de Plouay and the HEW Cyclassics before flying to compete in the Canadian races. Finally, he’ll return to Europe to close out the season with Paris-Tours and the Giro di Lombardia.

“I will race the worlds,” Gilbert joked. “If I am selected. …”

You get a funny feeling that Gilbert will be heading to the world championships this year, though he’s the first to admit the Copenhagen course isn’t to his liking.

Perhaps he should take a page from his Clásica tactics book and arrive the night before. It worked pretty well in Spain.

Quick results

  • 1. Philippe Gilbert, (BEL) Omega Pharma-Lotto, 234km in 5:48:52
  • 2. Carlos Barredo , (ESP) Rabobank, at 0:12
  • 3. Greg Van Avermaet, (BEL) BMC Racing Team, at 0:14
  • 4. Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver, (ESP) Team Katusha, same time
  • 5. Dries Devenyns, (BEL) Quick Step, s.t.

Complete results

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