Half a week after Paris-Roubaix and half a week before the Amstel Gold Race, the Brabantse Pijl/Flèche Brabançonne figured as a missing link between the pavé Classics and the Ardennes Classics. Though many Ardennes protagonists weren't present in Leuven, Belgium there was one contender who left his mark in the Brussels area: Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto).
The Walloon impressed with a solo counter-attack to reach the decisive breakaway group of six riders, before being the only rider able to follow Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM) deep into the finale. In the sprint Leukemans wasn't a match for Gilbert, who grabbed his fourth win of the season.
"Already from the start of the season it's been my goal to be in top form for the upcoming week," said Gilbert. "I didn't start my season too bad and won two, three races along the way. Every week my form has gone up a notch and I'm approaching the level I'm supposed to be at, being 100 percent in Liège.
"It's a completely different race compared to the one here, much harder. Of course it's pleasant to be good today as it gives me confidence for the upcoming week. Now I know that I'm good and that I can count on my team; I need them to support me. Now I know that they'll be strong enough to assist me on Sunday and especially next Sunday in Liège-Bastogne-Liège."
When the decisive breakaway was formed Gilbert was nowhere to be seen. A little later, however, the 28-year-old Belgian showed off his good form with a blistering attack on the partly-cobbled climb of the Hertstraat. Gilbert left the peloton trailing behind him and closed the gap to the six breakaway riders in no time.
"It's been a bizarre race, like most races with radios. There's not a lot of communication. I saw the group go. I was in about 20th position which was a bit too far to react.
"I looked around and saw that there were a couple of teammates. I asked them to ride a bit to get me in position for the cobbles. I got back to the group in about 500m which is pretty fast. I recovered a bit and from there we worked well together.
"I don't know who rode behind us, I heard that RadioShack did it for a while. From last year we learned that it's very hard to organize the chase on this course. Once the lead is up to 40 or 50 seconds it would be difficult for those behind us. They would have to go very fast through the hills," Gilbert said.
No gifts for Leukemans
Once the breakaway had more than a minute on the first chasers it was clear they would be fighting for the victory. Just before hitting the final local lap Leukemans attacked with only Gilbert being able to hold his wheel. Quite soon the duo was spotted talking, causing questions about possible financial deals from the winner towards the runner-up.
"No, we talked about the nice weather and what tomorrow's weather would be like," Gilbert said. "We had 20 to 30 seconds but there wasn't a lot of information. If I would attack him or the other way around it was sure one of the two would struggle. We agreed to work together. Of course the runner-up would be a bit disappointed but that's cycling. It was the best choice."
It's no secret the two would love to ride on the same team but for Omega Pharma-Lotto it would hard to take Leukemans back after dismissing him from the team when he tested positive for testosterone at the end of 2007. "Last year in the Tour of Flanders we found ourselves together too when we were working together with the two of us for 40km for a place of honour," said Gilbert. "Last year we were also together in this race. We know each other a bit and we both have the same characteristics: we both can go fast on the short and steep climbs while on the flat we're not the best rouleurs but not the worst either.
"If we would be teammates that would make for a nice duo. Last year it almost happened but he was still under contract or there was an option in his contract... I don't know about the details. Björn deserves a nice victory. He's been going well for a long time now but I couldn't afford to give away presents here. One of my bosses lives here (Marc Frederix from co-sponsor Lotto) which is a small side-note but very important today."
Eventually the two didn't attack each other and they arrived at the finish together where Gilbert easily outsprinted Leukemans. "I wasn't afraid of him but you never know what happens in the sprint but on paper I was the fastest," said Gilbert. "It's always great to win, especially just before this important week."
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