Three-times Amstel Gold Race winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team) paid a high price for his injured hand on Sunday, with the knock-on effects of the fractured finger effectively knocking the rider out of the battle for victory.
Gilbert had insisted that rather than a top favourite for victory on Sunday, his injury made him an outsider in the race. But whether he wanted that status or not, the Belgian’s track record in Amstel Gold Race nonetheless ensured Gilbert remained a key reference point for all of the contenders and his unexpected absence from the running made for a very different Amstel indeed.
Some 35 kilometres from the finish, Gilbert suddenly appeared on television images in a group that had been dropped by the main bunch, together with Matt Hayman (Orica-GreenEdge) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data). But whilst the Australian and Norwegian managed to return to the main peloton, Gilbert did not.
As Gilbert explained afterwards, his injury made it impossible for him to perform at his best. In a domino-like series of consequences, Gilbert’s finger injury forced him to change his position on the bike, which then affected his back, which then, in turn, made it impossible for him to pedal at full power. The Belgian star finally finished 81st, his worst ever result in the Dutch one-day Classic in over ten years of participations.
Visibly weary but willing to talk to the press outside the BMC bus at the finish, Gilbert commented that, “having to change my position on the bike really blocked everything for me. After about four hours racing, it all started to get bad.”
As for his chances across the border in the Belgian Ardennes Classics later this week, Gilbert argued, “it will be complicated, but we’ll see. My legs felt good, but when you can’t actually get any power out, that makes it much harder.”
According to Gilbert, he had been feeling good at the start, “and I had been optimistic. But after four hours, suddenly it went bad. The cold and rain made it harder, too, I was braking a bit later than the others and each time I braked, I lost a lot of positions in the group and I was getting pushed out of the picture time after time. After a while, the elastic breaks and you end up out of it altogether.”
Gilbert denied there was any chance he might skip Fleche Wallonne to concentrate on getting better for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, saying simply, “no, we’ve not talked about that.”
Gilbert’s exit from the front row of contenders in Amstel Gold Race caused a major change in the race’s development. As the default favourite, last year Gilbert’s searing attack on the Cauberg was the moment the race truly began to be decided and the most frequently heard comment amongst riders and directors about the Belgian before the start was that Gilbert, injured or not, remained a force to be reckoned with.
His sudden absence created a power vacuum that as Sonny Colbrelli (Bardiani CSF), third at the finish pointed out, made for what the Italian called “a very different race.”
“It’s hard to create miracles in situations like that,” BMC Racing sports director Valerio Piva added, “and at the end of the day, after 250 kilometres in a race with a finale like Amstel you have to be in absolute tip-top condition in order to be up there to fight for the win.”
Amstel’s constantly twisting series of narrow back-lanes did Gilbert no favours, Piva pointed out. “It’s a course where you’re constantly braking and accelerating on the corners, that wasn’t good for his hand, and then his back started hurting as well.”
“We knew he wasn’t going to be at 100 percent, but with his determination to do well and his character, we still believed in him. This is ‘his’ race.”
“We’ll keep on supporting him, there are still two big races to come this week.” Piva explained, although he express concern at the effect the much rougher road surfaces that predominate in the Belgian Ardennes - unlike in Holland where the roads are in far better condition - could have on his star rider’s injury.
The plan ‘B’ for BMC Racing, Piva said, was to try to do something both with Samuel Sanchez and with the younger riders, and in the case of Loic Vliegen, ninth in his first ever Amstel Gold, “that worked out very well and Dylan [Teuns, 18th] was also up front as well. Our leader wasn’t at 100 percent, but as well as him we have a good future, and we can be pleased about that.”