Belgium may be a country currently divided by an apparently irreparable cultural, linguistic and political split between Dutch-speaking Flanders and Francophone Wallonia, but this afternoon the country is united behind Philippe Gilbert. In winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider becomes only the second man ever to win all three Ardennes Classics in the same week, outsprinting the two Schleck brothers in the final straight, with Frank finishing second and Andy third.
The Leopard Trek siblings appeared to have the upper hand as the trio crested the race’s final climb, the Cote de St Nicolas together, and it was clear that those three riders would occupy the podium. Perhaps drained by their efforts on that climb, the brothers were unable to press home their numerical superiority, and Gilbert sprinted off the final bend to take the win he really wanted.
The Omega Pharma Lotto rider, who lives on the route of today’s race, finishes a phenomenal week that began last Sunday with victory in the Amstel Gold Race, followed on Wednesday with his win in Fleche Wallonne.
The only man to have completed the Ardennes hat-trick previously was then Gerolsteiner rider Davide Rebellin, although many view his achievement as somewhat tarnished following the Italian’s positive test for CERA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he won silver in the road race.
Just 6km into the 256km race, ridden in glorious weather, a trio of riders got clear of the peloton, Sebastien Delfosse of Landbouwkrediet, AG2R’s David Le Lay and Movistar’s Jesus Herrada.
They were subsequently joined by a further seven riders – Fredrik Kessiakoff of Astana, Eduard Vorganov from Katusha, Vacansoleil’s Thomas De Gendt, Tony Gallopin of Cofidis, FDJ’s Mickael Delage, Yannick Talabardon from Saur-Sojasun and BMC’s Mathias Frank.
With Omega Pharma-Lotto keeping the break on a tight leash on behalf of Gilbert, the escapees were kept within four minutes of the chasing bunch, with the gap reducing as the race approached the closing 100 kilometres and the series of climbs that give the oldest Classic of all its fearsome reputation.
While some of the escapees found the ascents too tough to handle and dropped back off the front group, behind them others were planning their own assaults from the pack, and with 80km left, nine riders bridged across to form a 13-strong leading group, including dangerous names such as BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, Quickstep’s Jerome Pineau and Enrico Gasparotto of Astana.
By now, Leopard Trek, without a man in the break, were taking up the chase to help protect the Schleck brothers’ hopes of taking the victory, with Gilbert’s Omega Pharma Lotto outfit happy to see someone else take up responsibility for chasing down the break.
Gasparotto and Van Avermaet got clear of their fellow escapees on the day’s penultimate climb, the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, crested some 20km from the finish, and behind them the Frank and Andy Schleck – the latter the winner here in 2009, went on the attack, followed immediately by Gilbert. Behind, Alexandre Vinokourov encountered trouble as he punctured halfway up the climb.
The Leopard Trek siblings and Gilbert, together with Pineau, caught the two leaders with 20km left to ride, and soon that group of six became four as the Frenchman from Quickstep and Gasparotto were shelled out of the back.
With a gap over the chasing group of 40 seconds heading into the final ten kilometres, that set up a fascinating finale on the race’s final climb, the Cote de St Nicolas, with the Schlecks looking to press home their two-to-one advantage over Gilbert, and Van Avermaet desperately hanging on to the three riders ahead of him.
Approaching the summit, the BMC rider finally cracked, and with no attack coming from the Leopard Trek pair, Gilbert instead took the initiative, losing the younger Schleck sibling, who had led the quartet onto the climb, a sign that he was working for his older brother.
On the descent, however, Andy joined the leading pair as Gilbert again found himself outnumbered, but they were unable to make that superiority count when it really mattered.
2011 Liege-Bastogne-Liege Result 1 GILBERT Philippe OMEGA PHARMA-LOTTO 6h 13' 18" 2 SCHLECK Frank LEOPARD-TREK + 00' 00" 3 SCHLECK Andy LEOPARD-TREK + 00' 00" 4 KREUZIGER Roman ASTANA + 00' 24" 5 URAN Rigoberto SKY PROCYCLING + 00' 24" 6 SORENSEN Chris SAXO BANK SUNGARD + 00' 24" 7 VAN AVERMAET Greg BMC + 00' 27" 8 NIBALI Vincenzo LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 00' 29" 9 LEUKEMANS Bjorn VACANSOLEIL-DCM + 00' 39" 10 SANCHEZ Samuel EUSKALTEL-EUSKADI + 00' 39" 11 KOLOBNEV Alexandr KATUSHA + 00' 43" 12 GERRANS Simon SKY PROCYCLING + 00' 43" 13 MARTENS Paul RABOBANK + 00' 43" 14 ANTON Igor EUSKALTEL-EUSKADI + 00' 43" 15 FREIRE Oscar RABOBANK + 00' 43" 16 CUNEGO Damiano LAMPRE-ISD + 00' 43" 17 VANENDERT Jelle OMEGA PHARMA-LOTTO + 00' 47" 18 VAN GARDEREN Tejay HTC-HIGHROAD + 00' 53" 19 VANDEWALLE Kristof QUICK STEP + 00' 57" 20 PINEAU Jérôme QUICK STEP + 00' 58"
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.