A trio from the Alex Aranbaru fan club, in T-shirts bearing the legend '¡Aupa Alex!' stood beyond the finish line in Bilbao watching the finale of stage 12 of the Vuelta a España on a small television screen. "Venga, venga, venga," they cried as Aranburu and fellow chaser Fernando Barcelo closed to within touching distance of the lone leader in the final kilometre, but, deep down, they must have suspected their hopes were in vain. Philippe Gilbert doesn't often miss opportunities like this.
So it proved. Gilbert's win rate may no longer match his prodigious output at the turn of the decade, but when the occasion presents itself, the Belgian tends to hit the target. The wickedly steep slopes of the Alto de Arraiz seemed tailored to his talents and he duly ripped clear of the day's break a little under 2km from the summit. He dropped over the other side with a winning advantage, and though his buffer dropped steadily in the shadow of the mighty San Mamés stadium, he held on to claim victory by three seconds. Never in doubt.
It was Gilbert's sixth stage win the Vuelta, and, in keeping with his most recent efforts, it was a most timely victory. In 2012, he landed the first wins of a trying season on the Vuelta, in Barcelona and La Lastrilla. A year later in Tarragona, he claimed his only victory in the rainbow jersey of world champion.
Thursday's triumph in Bilbao, meanwhile, felt like a firm signal of his intentions for the forthcoming World Championships in Yorkshire, as well as a response to his exclusion from the Deceuninck-QuickStep team for the Tour de France, which prefigured his impending transfer to Lotto Soudal.
"It was complicated because I worked hard to be ready for the Tour de France. My form was excellent, but then I had to drop everything and stop. Mentally, that was complicated," Gilbert said of learning that he had been deemed surplus to requirements for La Grande Boucle.
"Afterwards, I had to start over and go through that process again and make all those sacrifices to do all the necessary work to be in form. It was complicated. But I found motivation by thinking about the chance I had to be world champion this year. I kept thinking about September 29; that was the motivation I needed to get back into shape."
Gilbert has been a more or less permanent fixture in the Belgian Worlds team during his career – he didn't race in Doha in 2016 and missed last year's event through injury – but it is some time since he started the race as an outright leader. The Yorkshire course reputedly lends itself to both cobbled Classics and Ardennes riders alike, and Gilbert sits snugly in the intersection of the Venn diagram of contenders.
"I haven't had a lot of contact with [Belgian national coach] Rik Verbrugghe, but I'm confident in his tactics. He knows my qualities, we trained together a lot when I lived in Belgium. He knows he can have confidence in me," Gilbert said. "I wouldn't say I should be the sole leader – but one of the leaders, yes."
Gilbert's late-career renaissance has taken place, of course, on a team where the concept of an outright leader is almost anathema, and the 37-year-old has had to balance ambition with selflessness during his tenure at Deceuninck-QuickStep. After winning the Tour of Flanders in 2017, Gilbert found himself marking teammate Niki Terpstra's pursuers in the same race a year later, but then seized the opportunity to lead when it presented itself at Paris-Roubaix this past April.
Now in his final weeks at Deceuninck-QuickStep before he returns to Lotto Soudal on a three-year contract that will take him past his 40th birthday, Gilbert paid tribute to the philosophy at Patrick Lefevere's team.
"I think we were innovators for three or four years with this mentality. I think since 2017, when I arrived, this team changed things with its way of riding, riding with lots of leaders who sacrificed themselves for one another," Gilbert said. "Other teams have started doing this since because they've seen that it works.
"I think that's the future of cycling. It's more dangerous for other teams. You have more results. OK, sometimes, you have to accept that you're behind blocking for the others, but that's cycling. The wheel always turns and come the end of the year, it evens out and you have plenty of chances to win."
Gilbert seized the first one that came his way on this Vuelta when he infiltrated the break that formed during a breathless day of racing in the Basque Country. Teammate Tim Declercq helped to ensure that he remained in contention come the final ascent – "Without him, I wouldn't have won" – and Gilbert had the strength to forge clear on the Arraiz. Yorkshire is just 24 days away, after all.
"My timing is good," Gilbert said. "I think I will be on form for the Worlds."
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