For one brief moment on the mythical slopes of the Bosberg, it looked as though Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) was going to dance away to victory at the Tour of Flanders. His sparkling attack saw him open up a gap on the front group but once the pursuers got organised and began to chase, Gilbert desisted and saw his Ronde dreams dissolve for another year.
“I tried to attack on the Bosberg, I thought it was the best place for me to get a gap,” Gilbert said on the steps of his team bus after the finish. “I quickly took ten seconds but then it stabilised, and when it came back down to eight seconds, I decided to wait. I thought it would be better to work together than attack one another after that.”
In the closing kilometres after that final climb, a select 12-man group formed on the front of the race, with race winner Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank-SunGard) then slipping away in the company of Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek). Gilbert explained it was difficult to mark every move.
“People were attacking one another, looked at one another, speeding up, slowing down and I was a little tired,” he said. “I think it was a totally different race to last year, there were a lot more riders who were competing for the win.”
Gilbert ultimately crossed the line in ninth place and admitted that he had nothing left for the sprint. “I didn’t sprint, I was dead,” he laughed. “I could hardly get out of the saddle, I had cramps everywhere.”
The Belgian’s race had appeared over with a little over 40km to go, when he was forced to stop for a wheel change. While he was chasing back on, Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek) was busy launching his fearsome move on the climb of the Leberg.
“The pressure wasn’t right on my rear tyre, so I changed it, but I had a lot of riders back with me,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert stayed calm as he caught back up to the chase group and with the pace so high among the pursuers, he remained hopeful that Cancellara would be unable to stay clear. Gilbert’s prediction proved correct when the Swiss rider and Chavanel were caught on the Muur under his impetus.
“When the gap was a minute I looked at my computer and saw that we were doing 60kph so I thought that up front it would be impossible to maintain such a high rhythm,” Gilbert said. “It was either going to go out to three minutes like it did last year, or else they were going to be brought back.”
While Gilbert ended the race empty handed, he was pleased with his performance and confident of his form as the main objective of his spring approaches, the Ardennes classics.
“I didn’t win this race, but I did a good race all the same,” Gilbert said. “My form is good.”
A Walloon by birth, Gilbert's avowed dream is to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege. But in a nation whose political system has been gridlocked by tensions between parties from the Flemish north and Francophone south, he enjoys great admiration among the Flemish population. His attack on the Bosberg will only have cemented that popularity still further, and as the Omega Pharma-Lotto bus drew away to raucous cheers, Gilbert must be well aware that he will be once again Belgium's standard bearer in the Ardennes.