On a day of blue skies and warm sun the man who lives on the course was too fast, strong and clever for the world’s best.
The break of the day began to gel within three kilometres of the start, finally numbering 11, as desperate men grabbed the bus hand rail and jumped on to the platform; Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil & Belgium), Mickael Delage (FDJ & France), Sebastien Delfosse (Landbou & Belgium), Mathias Frank (BMC & Switzerland), Tony Gallopin (Cofidis & France), Simon Geschke (Skil & Germany), Fred Kessiakoff (Astana & Sweden), David Lelay (AG2R & France), Jesus Herrada Lopez (Movistar & Spain), Yannick Talbardon (Saur-Sojasun & France) and Eduard Vorganov (Katusha & Russia).
The first points of the the day to Vino and Rodriguez, then – both with men in the break; Lotto and Leopard missing the bus.
Across the Meuse at the day’s start…and into the Ardennes.
The fugitives soon gained a three minute advantage; but the peloton was reluctant to let that swell and the advantage hovered at this level from around 40 kilometres through to inside the 100 K to go mark, where it stretched to four minutes before sliding again as the race hit climb of Haute-Levee with 83 K to go.
The end game began here as the leaders long day in the sun began to tell; the second string riders thought about springing surprises and the big guns thought about preventing any surprises from being sprung.
A second group moved to try to bridge, with some strong men present – Enrico Gasparotto (Astana & Italy) perhaps the best known; but a Leopard powered peloton wasn’t cutting much slack.
With 72 K to go there were five survivors still ahead – Paris-Nice revelation De Gendt was the most active, with Gallopin, Vorganov, Herrada and Lopez all doing their spell as small chase groups ebbed and flowed between break and bunch; with Lotto doing a little more than they would have really liked at the head of the peloton.
At 63 K the five leaders were caught by the ‘Gaspa’ chasers to give around a dozen at the head with a lead of one minute – but that was held in check by Lotto’s hard graft as the race wound through the tree lined slopes of the Ardennes under blue skies and a warm sun.
People never give the day’s first climb, the Col de St. Roch, much credit, but it’s a mean, evil, nasty piece of asphalt.
Inside 60 K to go and Jens Voigt joined the chase for Leopard, rocking and rolling as he pumped out the watts – but the Lotto men on his wheel weren’t complaining about his style, they were just happy to sitting in his wash.
Despite the big German’s work rate, the gap hovered around the minute as Gaspa and De Gendt’s ‘desperate dozen’ worked well together – Cataldo (Spain) and Pineau (France) were there for QuickStep as were Garate (Spain) and Ten Dam (Holland) for Rabobank – not a bad group at all.
Vacansoleil began to mass at the front as the last hour approached and the ‘kilometres to go’ ducked under 50.
Up front, Ten Dam worked the Mont Theux climb hard on the tops of his ‘bars, Gaspa danced out of the saddle, Pineau horsed a big gear on the hooks whilst the original break survivors gritted their teeth.
By the top the desperados had stretched their lead on the posse to 1:18 but Gilbert wasn’t looking too stressed.
Previous winner, ‘Killer’ Di Luca (Katusha & Italy) appeared near the head of the bunch as riders’ thoughts turned to the brute that is the Cote de la Redoute.
The party on the Cote is cool, though; big screen, burgers, pils and frites and all in the sunshine – wish I was there !
In the peloton, Gilbert and Schleck were playing mind games; ‘I’m not fussed if I win or not!” they seemed to be saying – but at 43 K to go it was Leopard’s Fabian Wegmann (Germany) grinding his teeth at the front as the break went to 1:42 and Gasparotto was the name PEZ was toying with as a possible winner.
Inside 40 K and the lead was still 1:41 to the leaders as the break passed the pastry shop at the foot of La Redoute.
Gaspa looked strong as he lead past the beer tents and crazed fans; De Gendt found reverse as Leopard drove the peloton, with Gilbert hovering just where he should.
By the top, the gap was back to 50 seconds and the break was down to seven or eight – a good number for hard work.
The peloton was much diminished too as Leopard and Lotto decided that the time for games was over if they wanted a win in the world’s oldest classic.
Inside 20 miles – 31 kilometres – and it was almost time for the Cote de la Roche aux Faucons – a nasty climb and a possible springboard for the big hitters as the gap came down to 35 seconds and the escapees glanced back anxiously.
Leopard’s Maxime Montfort (Belgium) was doing the damage on the front of the peloton – Vino’s chunky frame lurking not far from the front – but the chase simply wasn’t organised and as Montfort swung off, the urgency slid.
Meanwhile the Magnificent Seven weren’t for quitting as Gaspa, Pineau, Garate, Ten Dam, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC & Belgium), Biel Kadri (AG2R & France) and Konstantin Siutsou (HTC & Belarus) kept it rolling to good effect as the gap stretched back out to 40 seconds.
The Roche aux Faucons – and suddenly it was a different race as the Schleck brothers and Gilbert made their move; one by one the breakaway riders were caught and became history within a few pedal strokes.
Vino punctured back in the peloton as a desperate Gaspa managed to catch a ticket for the Leopard/Lotto Express; Van Avermaet too grabbed a seat – but it was short lived for the Italian and he slid backwards on a rise.
Gilbert attacked hard on the St. Nicolas, but couldn’t get rid of Frдnk…and with the slowing over the top, Andy was allowed to get back on.
Inside 20 K and the four were riding hard with just the horrible Cote de Saint-Nicolas to come.
The peloton was a now a long, long line as Astana, Rabobank, Liquigas, Katusha and Euskaltel switched to ‘desperation’ mode – but it all looked too late.
Ahead, the three strong men drove as Van Avermaet hung on for dear life; 25 seconds, 35 seconds and at 10 kilometres it was 43 seconds – ‘game over’ for the peloton.
The Standard Liege football ground looms huge and red; we’re into the finale – most of it up hill.
After the fireworks on the St. Nicolas…the three rode to the finish together…waiting on the sprint.
Will the Schlecks ‘one-two’ Gilbert?
Or can Gilbert do the impossible?
It won’t be long until we find out.
Past the terraced houses where the Italian miners lived, the gap is 44 seconds, Frank spins a tiny gear as the tar rears black and steep.
Van Avermaet dangles, the Schlecks ease and force Gilbert to the front.
Of course, the two Schlecks against Gilbert was hardly a match.
Vacansoleil drive behind as the gap slips inside 30 seconds and Van Avermaet is gone – Gilbert leads, he rides tempo then attacks, Frank responds, Andy has gone, Gilbert rides big tempo again, Frank sits on, Andy comes back.
Just a little downhill, Gilbert leads again, then Andy.
Inside three K to go and the lead is 37 seconds, still Gilbert leads, then Andy, Frank hovers.
Andy leads, but really the Luxembourg men should be working Gilbert over.
The red kite and still it drags upwards, Andy leads, Gilbert second, Frank at the back – a glance back from Gilbert, just the left hander to go.
They ease left, Gilbert takes it up – it’s a no contest; too much speed, too much strength, too much grinta.
The magical triple; Amstel, Fleche and Liege – enough said!
1. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 6:13:18
2. Frдnk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek
3. Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek
4. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Pro Team Astana 0:00:24
5. Rigoberto Uran Uran (Col) Sky Procycling
6. Chris Anker Sцrensen (Den) Saxo Bank Sungard
7. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team 0:00:27
8. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:29
9. Bjцrn Leukemans (Bel) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team 0:00:39
10. Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
11. Alexandr Kolobnev (Rus) Katusha Team 0:00:43
12. Simon Gerrans (Aus) Sky Procycling
13. Paul Martens (Ger) Rabobank Cycling Team
14. Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
15. Oscar Freire Gomez (Spa) Rabobank Cycling Team