No sooner had the UCI Road World Championships men’s road race finished than the questions about Belgium’s inability to win a medal quickly began.
"Why did Julian Vermote work so hard so early?" asked Freddy Maertens when quizzed by Het Laatste Nieuws.
Van Avermaet and Gilbert are two of the sport's best Classics riders, but neither are Sagan-class sprinters. That weakness was exposed in Bergen. After failing to go with Julian Alaphilippe on the final assault of Salmon Hill, and failing to get away in the finale, Van Avermaet and Gilbert finished sixth and 17th respectively.
The Belgian team had been active and vigilant throughout the race, with Tim Wellens in the best break of the finale with two laps to go. However, a crash just before the final climb of Salmon Hill took out Tiesj Benoot, Jens Keukeleire and Jasper Stuyven, leaving Van Avermaet and Gilbert alone to try to find a solution.
Gilbert tried to go with Alaphilippe when his Quick-Step Floors teammate launched his powerful acceleration on Salmon Hill, but he lacked the punch to go with him and he doubts that the move would stay away to the finish played on his mind.
"I knew that Julian would do something, that's why I was on his wheel," Gilbert pragmatically explained to the French-speaking media, as an apparent defence against any criticism.
"But he went really hard and I let him go. I thought it was too early, that he'd run out of energy by the time he reached the top of the climb. Terpstra and Moscon went passed me but I hesitated a bit because we were also a fair distance from the finish and I saw that Greg was there with us. We came back together on the decent and the Danish team rode for Magnus Cort Nielsen."
Knowing he had little chance in a sprint finish, Gilbert tried an attack on the flat waterfront road in the final three kilometres. Few people saw it due to the lack of live television images but replays again revealed Gilbert's hesitance.
"I tried with 2.5km to go but Gaviria jumped on my wheel and Sagan was just behind. I kept going a bit but the group came up to us and that was it for me," he explained, a justification ready for every aspect of his race.
"However, we can only congratulate him. He's a true phenomenon. Chapeau to him."