The great novelty of this year’s race was the removal of the finale up the Cauberg, with the climb now placed 17 kilometres from the finish. The alteration contributed to a more aggressive race, with Gilbert forging clear in what proved to be the decisive selection on the Kruisberg with 40 kilometres to go.
Kwiatkowski was in an elite chasing group at that point, but he showcased his form by shedding Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on the Keutenberg 10 kilometres later and cruising across to the leading group, where he linked up with teammate Sergio Henao.
“It was very surprising that it went so early with six guys in the front then me, seven,” Kwiatkowski told Cycling Pro. “I was surprised everybody went so early but I had Sergio in the front and I was happy we had everything under control. I saw Van Avermaet and Valverde having a go on the Keutenberg but they struggled a lot, so I decided to have a go and in the end it worked out.”
The seven-man leading group remained intact until the final climb of the Bemelerberg, where Kwiatkowski launched a searing acceleration that only Gilbert could follow. Kwiatkowski, already winner of Milan-San Remo, and Gilbert, who won the Tour of Flanders two weeks ago, were the strongmen of the race, and they opened a winning gap on the ascent, and collaborated smoothly to the finale in Valkenburg.
Kwiatkowski had already out-smarted and out-kicked Peter Sagan on the Via Roma this spring, and at one point he put daylight between himself and Gilbert, only to be overhauled in the closing metres. There was no repeat of his 2015 Amstel victory for Kwiatkowski, while Gilbert claimed his fourth victory in the Dutch race.
“We were in the game to win the race, but I was missing a bit of strength in the last 50 metres,” Kwiatkowski said. “What can I say? Phil is a great champion, a great rider, and I was beaten by the better rider today. I’m happy for how it went, and I’m looking forward to the next days.”
On Monday morning, it emerged that Gilbert had suffered a tear to a kidney in a crash during the race, and the Belgian champion will forgo both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Kwiatkowski will line up among the favourites for La Doyenne.