Short, steep climbs have been Philippe Gilbert's personal fiefdom throughout 2011, but the Belgian finally came up short on his favorite terrain at Saturday's Giro di Lombardia. Chasing a third consecutive victory in the season's most picturesque race, Gilbert floundered on race's last difficulty and could only manage eighth place behind winner Oliver Zaugg (Leopard Trek).
The haul up to Villa Vergano in the finale seemed tailor-made for Gilbert's characteristics, but as the road narrowed and the gradient reared up to 15 percent near the summit, his much-anticipated attack never materialised. Instead, he was distanced as Zaugg bounded clear and Dan Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) led the chase behind.
"There were stronger riders, there's nothing to say," Gilbert told a huddle of reporters after crossing the line in Lecco 15 seconds down in the second chase group. "On a climb like that, the strongest are at the front and everybody is in his place."
After being to all intents and purposes unbeatable in that kind of situation for over 12 months, it was striking to see Gilbert distanced by so many riders on the final climb. On top of his game through the spring and the summer, had he simply gone to the well too many times over the course of the season?
"On the day, it's a combination of a lot of small things. In the end, it was a question of having a little bit less strength and less form than the others. And at this level, that's very costly," Gilbert said, smiling grimly.
Earlier in the race, Gilbert had been part of a five-man break that formed after the descent of the Colma di Sormano. When Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) powered clear on the Madonna del Ghisallo, however, Gilbert was first unable to follow and then unwilling to persist in a group chase behind the Sicilian.
"When he went, he opened up a gap of 50 seconds. The descent was long, so once we knew that there was another group 20 seconds behind us, we decided to wait for help and play it out on the last climb," Gilbert said.
Though that climb would prove to be Gilbert's Waterloo, the Belgian preferred to place the defeat in the context of a season that has seen him attain a level of year-long dominance perhaps not seen since Laurent Jalabert's startling 1995 campaign. Gilbert's achievements were all the more remarkable given that the ruminations of the saga of his protracted transfer to BMC provided constant background noise.
"The season I've had has been very hard, I've had a lot of extra pressures, so to finish in the top 10, it means that I've finished it well. I didn't win today, but I've won a lot this year and I can be proud and happy with my season."
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.