After finishing fourth at Dwars door Vlaanderen last week, Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott) said that consistently making the selections was key to his progress in the spring classics. After managing just that at E3-Harelbeke two days later, again finishing fourth, the Australian impressed once again on the opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne, finishing second behind solo winner Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors).
De Panne may be a stage race but, nestled between last week's trio of one-day races and Sunday's Tour of Flanders, each stage 'must be treated as a classic', as Durbridge pointed out. Indeed, the opening leg from De Panne to Zottegem took in a few of the hellgingen that adorn the De Ronde route, including the Leberg, Berendries, Ten Bosse, and a double ascent of the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen, which is making a comeback this Sunday.
Durbridge made the boat when Gilbert, who finished ahead of him in second place at Dwars and E3, accelerated on the first ascent of the Muur with 65 kilometres remaining, and he was the best of the rest when the Belgian champion punched his way clear over the second ascent. It seemed like Durbridge might use his time trialling background to regain contact on the 16km run to the line – which nevertheless included another short climb – but he was unable to make any inroads.
"That's the problem; one of my little weaknesses is that when it really, really, really gets steep, I just can't seem to hold, and Phil's one of the best in the world when it comes to steep climbs. I got gapped a bit and I thought I'd ride back on, but I think I realized he had a gap and knew he had good legs. I tried to time trial back, but I just couldn't close it.
"I thought Phil might get sick of riding by himself and might want a helping hand. That's my skill, TT'ing. Once I get the gap just settle in and ride to the finish, I was hoping that could incrementally pull him back, but it wasn't to be."
Gilbert rode up as Durbridge was speaking to journalists and gave him a warm embrace. There is clearly a good deal of respect between the two riders, who are expected to be among those rubbing shoulders towards the head of the race on Sunday.
"He's an unbelievable, world-class bike rider, so for me just to be following him…" said Dubridge. "Second was the absolute best I could do. I knew Phil would go on the muur – I knew he was the guy to follow from the first time we went up. I was on the wheel – there was no excuse there. I did everything I could, put myself in every situation to win the race, but Phil, as you can see from the last couple of weeks, is something special."
'Maybe my time trialling ability has come down'
Quite apart from the confidence that must now be building ahead of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Durbridge has put himself in a strong position to try and win the Three Days of De Panne.
He finished 17 seconds down on Gilbert and, after bonus seconds from intermediate sprints and the finish line were factored in, he finds himself 22 seconds down on the general classification, with the key battle coming in the form of the 14km time trial on the afternoon of the split final stage.
Durbridge is a former U23 world champion in the discipline, and a former national champion at elite level, though he played down his chances of snatching the win, pointing out that Gilbert is himself a former national time trial champion in a country with no shortage of rouleurs.
"It's one of my strengths. I've had to work on my road racing ability so I've put a lot of emphasis on that in recent years and maybe the time trial has come down a little bit. But hopefully they're both strong this week and I can go for the GC," Durbridge said.
"I have confidence, obviously for the podium. Phil's been national time trial champion a couple of times… you don't want to give him any time and I gave him a bit of time today. We'll see how it goes. That's the thing with De Panne, you have to treat every day as a classic. Tomorrow we go up the Kemmel, you treat every day as classic. So we'll race again tomorrow and see how we go."