After winning the Flèche Brabançonne and the Amstel Gold Race, Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) added a third prestigious win in one week to his palmarès with a stunning victory in the Flèche Wallonne.
On Gilbert's home soil, in the Walloon region of Belgium, the new Superman humiliated the rest of the peloton on the Mur de Huy. Next Sunday Gilbert can claim a unique quadruple by winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“If I win on Sunday it would be unique because I think it's never been done before,” Gilbert said. “I'm in the position to do it but you can never be too confident. From tomorrow on, just like for any other race I'll start my mental and physical preparation for Liège so I can be at the rendezvous on Sunday. The others are very strong and the teams are very strong. We're a long way from the victory right now. Everything has still to be done.”
Gilbert not be lacking in support, as the enthusiastic home crowds showed on Wednesday on the Mur that they were ready to shout their Phil to victory in Liège. In the last 50m Gilbert even had time to raise his arms and gesture to the crowd, sending them into raptures.
Half an hour later, while Gilbert was giving interviews, the crowd was still cheering him on as if they were in a football stadium. His father Jeanot Gilbert was a proud man afterwards and he predicted that the multitudes at Liège-Bastogne-Liège would be even more impressive.
“We always organize an event on La Redoute and last year there were about 10,000 people, but seeing this there will be much more than that,” Gilbert Senior said. “He's incredible. You know that during the first passage of the Mur he was still sitting completely at the back. I didn't expect him to win today, more in Liège.”
Like his father, Philippe Gilbert didn't predict a good performance in Huy as it was supposed to be a race that didn't suit him. His performance on the Mur where he left the Spanish co-favourite Joaquin ‘Purito’ Rodriguez (Katusha) behind with ease makes that statement seem extremely modest.
“I no longer know what my limits are,” Gilbert smiled. “I used to think that I could only win the races of my dreams like the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Lombardy, which I've already won, and of course Liège. I didn't think I could win a race like this one today. It's an extremely hard race that favours the climbers so to me it's a surprise.
“This victory gives me a lot of confidence for the future. I feared a finish like this one and now I can start to think about winning races I had never even thought about. For example, I've never started in Emilia [Giro dell'Emilia] because I thought it was way too hard for me. Now that I've won here, a switch has flicked in my head.”
Ardennes support compensates for disappointment on the cobbles
A surprising feature of the race was that Gilbert’s Omega Pharma-Lotto team didn’t bother chasing down the early breakaway, even when they had an advantage of over 17 minutes. Afterwards Gilbert explained why the team opted not to do so.
“Today the team didn't cooperate with Saxo Bank and Leopard in pursuit of the early breakaway because they spent a huge amount of energy last Sunday at Amstel,” he said. “Next Sunday they're up for it again so we economized today. We won but we didn't work all along, which isn't very nice to see, but we made that choice and stuck to that plan. In the end it was the best decision for us.”
At the post-race press conference, Gilbert also reflected on the team that flanked him at the Tour of Flanders and he made it clear that he wasn't well supported. At Flèche, teammate Jelle Vanendert led out Gilbert during the run-up to the Mur and he managed to fight for fourth place, eventually finishing sixth.
“During the cobbled classics the team was weak but in these races we're really strong,” Gilbert said.
Once on the Mur it was up to Gilbert to go flat out and he explained why he opted to go from quite far out on the 1300m long climb. “I saw Rodriguez and Contador in the second and third row,” he said. “If I’d let them come back to my wheel it might have been too late. It was still very far. It surely was an effort of more than one minute, just over 200m. I thought: 'go' and then we would see what happened.”
Ultimately the Belgian had to go flat out for exactly 43 seconds. By that time it was clear that he had more than enough time to celebrate his victory, with the outpouring of cheers from the ecstatic home fans offering a fitting conclusion to this 75th edition of the Flèche Wallonne.