Perched on a hilltop that commands a dramatic panorama of Vicenza, the basilica of the Madonna di Monte Berico hardly requires any further embellishment, yet over the centuries, figures such as Andrea Palladio and Paolo Veronese have added their own flourishes to the sanctuary.
This Giro d'Italia, where the general classification favourites have been in the thick of the action on an almost daily basis, hardly feels in obvious need of enhancement either, yet Philippe Gilbert was reluctant to allow his first appearance in the corsa rosa in six years pass without at least one telling cameo as he claimed victory on stage 12.
On the road to Imola the previous day, his BMC team had spent much of the afternoon chasing the early break only to desist in the final hour, and on the outskirts of Vincenza on Thursday, it looked as if indecision was about to scupper Gilbert’s chances once again.
The Belgian initially gave chase when Tanel Kangert (Astana) and Franco Pellizotti (Androni Giocattoli) forged clear following the climb of Perarolo, but soon found himself caught in no man's land, and made a quick calculation to sit up and wait for the pink jersey group.
"When the rider from Astana attacked and got across to Pellizotti, they rode behind a motorbike for about a kilometre and suddenly they had a 30-second lead," Gilbert said matter-of-factly. "I was chasing with [Jon] Izaguirre but there was no moto in front of us – unlike them, we were in the wind and it was going to be hard to bring them back. In the end I decided to wait for the group because I heard over the radio that [Silvan] Dillier and [Amaël] Moinard were getting back on, and they did a lot of work to set me up in the last five or six kilometres."
Rain was general all over the province of Vicenza by the time the pink jersey group hit the lower ramps of Monte Berico, where Kangert – now alone – was grimly defending a 10-second lead that was dissolving and dwindling as the gradient began to bite. He must have been conscious of the chasers as he reached the finishing straight and caught sight of the basilica above the Arrivo banner, though they did not apprehend him until Gilbert bounded past with 200 metres to go.
Gilbert had launched his final acceleration 50 metres earlier, bludgeoning his way clear of the pink jersey group with sheer force. Remarkably, he was able to put daylight into Alberto Contador, Diego Ulissi et al, and there were shades of his 2011 Flèche Wallonne win when he sat up to celebrate short of the line, eventually winning by some three seconds.
"I couldn't make any mistakes today but I knew it was the last real chance for me to win a stage in this race," Gilbert said. "I had a lot of belief because I went to see this finale with Fabio Baldato before Milan-San Remo, and knowing the final climb made the difference. The start of the season didn't really go as I had hoped, so I wanted a win like this."
When the Giro route was unveiled last October, the consensus was that Monte Berico would be the preserve of the puncheurs, and while Gilbert saw off the likes of Ulissi, Enrico Battaglin (Bardiani-CSF) and Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) to take the win, his closest challenger ultimately proved to be the pink jersey himself, Contador.
"I'm not surprised because it's been a very difficult Giro and everyone is very tired," Gilbert said of Contador’s performance. "The peloton after 10 days is as tired as a peloton would normally be at the end of three weeks. We're all very tired and that makes the race very hard. And the GC guys are all racing hard before the time trial, too, because they all want to start off behind one another there."
Gilbert's Classics campaign was ultimately conditioned by the crash he suffered at Flèche Wallonne, though even before that, he was not quite at his most effervescent. While he led up the Cauberg at Amstel Gold Race, for instance, he was unable to force his way clear as he had done so often in the past.
The victory above Vicenza was Gilbert's first of the current campaign, and one that he will surely hope augurs well for the remainder of a season where the World Championships in Richmond will figure prominently in his plans. The soon-to-be 33-year-old was coy of his prospects of lining up at the proposed 2020 Worlds here in Vicenza, though he sounded a more optimistic note about seeing out the remainder of this Giro, despite its mountainous final week.
"We'll see, I came here to win a stage and it came off today," Gilbert said. "But we've got [Damiano] Caruso too, and he's going well [he lies eighth at 2:29 – ed.] It would be good to help him. To go top 10 in a big tour you need teammates too, eh?"
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