Contributed by Ben Goddard
The race came to a frantic end with the bunch together at the bottom of the final climb. Gilbert attacked from the front and left the rest of the favourites dribbling in his wake. 2010 UCI #1, Joaquim Rodriguez, finished second for the second straight year while Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez came in third, three and five seconds respectively behind the triumphant Walloon.
An early break of four populated by Maciej Paterski, Preben Van Hecke, Maxime Vantomme, and Matti Helminen took the initiative and gained a huge advantage of 16 minutes on the bunch in the early stages.
While Philippe Gilbert has justifiably received all the attention of late, his teammate, Jelle Vanendert, has proved to be the perfect super domestique. Vanendert finished 6th today.
After letting the leash get a bit too long, the teams of the favorites came to the fore, opened the throttle wide, and made the race a survival of the fittest battle over the leg zapping Ardennes countryside. Between the climbs, riders were constantly getting blown out the back in a constant stream of wayward souls.
On a sidenote – the radio dispute was quieted at least for a day, as radios were in use for the day’s World Tour event.
At the bottom of the second time up the Mur de Huy the break had just over two minutes and 30KM to go.
The Mur de Huy was a veritable wall packed full of fans and flags. Belgian spectators packed it from the bottom to the top. Omega Pharma-Lotto took over the bunch by this point with the help of Saxo Bank and Leopard Trek not to be seen after their initial chase. The climb wound up through the trees and ascended closer and closer to vertical before it finally eased off at least a little bit for the finish line.
The race goes up the Mur three times, and the suffering was evident from the bottom of the second time the riders went up. Matti Helminen was dropped from the break up the climb and went back to the bunch, just as four riders went off the front of the bunch over the top including Kolobnev, Gasparotto, Van Garderen, and Lovkivst. The quartet caught the three breakaway men, who were already on their way back to the bunch. The break, which got a major injection of firepower with the addition of the four engines, never gained more than 20 seconds on the focused Lotto-led bunch, intent on a showdown on the Mur de Huy in just twenty kilometers.
The seven-up break didn’t work together well, and eventually, Thomas Lцvkvist (Sky) and Vasili Kiryienka (Movistar) broke away while the rest returned to the fold. The two escapees only had 16 seconds with 10 KM to go, behind a vastly depleted peloton numbered only 60 as the final ascent of the Mur de Huy approached.
Philippe Gilbert is in a class unto himself right now.
The race came together with 8 KM to go. The catch was followed by new acts of aggression – with rider after rider firing off the front to grab a last gasp advantage before the climb, but none were able to get too much of a lead. Jerome Pineau and Marco Marcato managed to push out a small head start as the Mur opened its arms wide for yet another thrilling finale. The duo didn’t stand a chance though, as the field hit the base of the climb. Frank Schleck took the front from the kilometre flag, but then it was an impressive Christophe Le Mevel who broke the standoff with a nice move. Unfortunately, Le Mevel’s foray into the lead lasted just a moment, as it ignited the fireworks Philippe Gilbert takes with him everywhere. Gilbert exploded past Le Mevel, while Rodriguez gamely chased and kept him somewhat close for a moment. Emphasis on the moment, because it didn’t take long for Gilbert to work that gap out to a margin unheard of on the Mur de Huy.
Alexandre Vinokourov confirmed his form ahead of his Liege-Bastogne-Liege title defense on Sunday with 4th on the Mur de Huy…but can he do anything to stop Phil?
The Omega Pharma-Lotto captain sat up with many meters still remaining and began to blow kisses to his adoring countrymen, while his rivals eked out every last bit they had just to grovel behind the smiling, happy, triumphant, easy winner.
Two races down, one to go to for Gilbert, as he seeks to become the second ever rider to win all three races of the Ardennes Triptych: the Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
1. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 4:54:57
2. Joaquнm Rodrнguez Olivier (Spa) Katusha 0:00:03
3. Samuel Sбnchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:00:05
4. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Pro Team Astana 0:00:06
5. Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
6. Jelle Vanendert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
7. Frдnk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek
8. Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team 0:00:09
9. Christophe Le Mevel (Fra) Team Garmin-Cervelo 0:00:12
10. Paul Martens (Ger) Rabobank Cycling Team
11. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard 0:00:15