On Sunday night, Philippe Gilbert put the disappointment of narrowly missing out on a World Championship medal behind him to thank his teammates for their contribution to his sixth place finish in the elite men's road race in Mendrisio, Switzerland.
Gilbert had entered Sunday's race under intense pressure, having been handed the role of sole team leader by Belgian national team coach Carlo Bomans. If Bomans's decision had raised some eyebrows, Gilbert vindicated his faith with a typically spirited performance, his hopes of a top-three finish only vanishing on the final climb to Novazzano on the last lap. There, Gilbert accelerated and briefly looked capable of catching Joaquin Rodriguez (Spain) and Alexandr Kolobnev (Russia), but was swept up by the Saxo Bank riders Matti Breschel (Denmark) and Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), Spain's Alejandro Valverde and Italy's Damiano Cunego.
"I got to within about 150 metres of Rodriguez and Kolobnev but then I cracked. It was really demanding today," Gilbert said reporters at the finish line.
Earlier in the day the Belgian quartet of Françis De Greef, Greg Van Avermaet, Tom Boonen and Bert De Waele had joined the 29-man group that finally fizzled out at the start of the 19th and last lap.
"It was a great performance by the team," Gilbert said after consolatory embraces from Bomans and Frank Vandenbroucke, who is following the Worlds as a columnist for Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. "I got a lot of help from everyone. It was perfect, with four riders in the big break, including Boonen.
"(Alejandro) Valverde (Spain) came to see me, then Cunego came to see me to ask us to ride, but I always had the excuse of our riders being in the break. Tom even helped me when his group was caught. That was really great to see. It also gave me another psychological boost in the finale; I didn't want to disappoint Tom."
Gilbert, whose best previous result in a World Championship road race was his eighth place in Stuttgart, Germany, two years ago, agreed that he had been one of the strongest riders in what proved to be a gruelling 262.2km race. Winner Cadel Evans's final average speed 37.777kph indicated that this had indeed been one of the toughest World Championship courses in recent memory.
Evans and Gilbert are teammates at Silence-Lotto for the other 364 days of the year. Tonight the Belgian paid warm tribute to the new World Champion.
"I think that Cadel was perhaps the strongest man in the race today," Gilbert said. "He's a great World Champion. It's rare that a major tour rider wins the rainbow jersey. The last one was Abraham Olano in 1995. It's going to be special for us at Silence-Lotto to have the jersey. I would have liked to have it on my back, but at least now I'll be able to see it up close up in the team."
Although clearly a deserving winner, Evans had benefited from starting the race as something of a dark horse according to Gilbert.
"I think it certainly played against me, and other riders that we were very hotly tipped, more so than Cadel," Gilbert conceded. "When you have people calling you a favourite 10 times a day, and especially when the Italians are calling you the favourite, it means more pressure and tighter marking. On the last lap, I made two moves to try to get across to Evans, and both times Cancellara chased me down. But that's racing. I tried my best. I would have liked to have done better but sixth isn't bad either."
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