Eighteen months after his triumph on the Cauberg in the 2012 World Championships, Philippe Gilbert (BMC) proved once again that, when in top form, he is all but unbeatable on the Netherlands’ best-known climb as he claimed victory at Amstel Gold Race.
Gilbert’s third victory out of his last five participations in the Dutch classic (he was 5th last year and 6th in 2012) was not only thanks to his strong form and faultless positioning; a fine sense of collective strategy on BMC's part also played a big role in netting Gilbert the fifth Ardennes Classic of his career.
After BMC teammate Greg Van Avermaet's dogged bid to keep his break up the road began the final part of the process of wearing out Gilbert's rivals, a powerful dig by Samuel Sánchez as the road began to steepen at the foot of the Cauberg weakened them still further.
Finally when Gilbert himself streaked away a little higher up, the other contenders were unable to respond to what was a very similar scenario to the 2012 Worlds. As in 2012, Gilbert opened a gap on the climb and then hammered home his advantage on the 1.7km plateau to the line that followed.
Gilbert, with the rainbow bands glinting on the ends of his BMC jersey sleeves, crossed the line alone again and was once more the star attraction of the winner’s press conference. Questions comparing Sunday’s victory with his successful quest for the rainbow jersey 18 months ago just a stone’s throw away were all but inevitable.
“It’s a Classic with the same high level of riders as in the Worlds,” Gilbert answered. “The best are here, just as they were back then.
“I was in a good position at the foot of the Cauberg, then it was planned that Sánchez would attack and when he did, that made it even tougher for my rivals.
“I waited a bit longer, then I went for it on the inside part of the curve, taking the final part of the climb at 100 percent.
“I had been worried that the tailwind we’d had on the previous ascents of the Cauberg might change, because sometimes that happens here in the afternoon, the wind changes direction, but in fact it didn’t, so that was perfect.”
Asked to look even further back, to 2011 when he clinched three Ardennes victories starting with his second Amstel Gold, Gilbert responded said he was in better form three years ago. “I was a bit stronger then than I was this time around, I’d already won other races earlier in the season,” he said, of a purple patch during his last season at Lotto that had kicked off with victory in that year’s Strade Bianche.
“At BMC [which he joined in 2012] it’s a bit different,” Gilbert continued. “I do work for the other riders, [Cadel] Evans, Tejay [van Garderen] in some of the stage races so I don’t have so many opportunities, but then when they have to work for me, I do them better.”
Gilbert claimed his first win of the season at Brabantse Pijl during the week, which he said “had also helped my motivation enormously. For the first time in a couple of years, too, my wife and family were here on the race and that was a big boost to my morale as well.”
Gilbert confirmed that he had had fewer commitments outside his training over the winter, all of which helped him focus more on his racing for 2014 and come into the season in better shape. He was also, he said, pleased to be sitting alongside fellow-Belgian Jelle Vanendert in the winner’s podium. “He’s a former teammate and a friend of mine, and on top of that he called me last summer, saying he’d dreamed the two of us finished first and second in Liège. Well, it wasn’t Liège, but it came true here.”
The big question now is whether Gilbert's second Brabantse Pijl triumph and third Amstel Gold ushers a hat-trick of victories in all three of the Ardennes Classics, like in 2011, or whether it is followed by several near-misses, as was the case in 2010, when he was sixth at Flèche Wallone and fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But after Sunday’s performance at Amstel, in any case, when it comes to the pre-race favourite for the two Belgian hilly Classics, Gilbert is back on top of the pack.