Philippe Gilbert of Belgium is the new world road race champion, attacking on the final climb of the Cauberg to win a thrilling race in the Dutch in Valkenburg this afternoon. No-one was able to catch the Belgian, winner of the Amstel Gold Race here in 2010 and 2011, once he accelerated away from a front group of fewer than 50 riders that hit the bottom of that climb for the final time. Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway came second, 4 seconds behind the winner, with Spain's Alejandro Valverde just behind in third.
Great Britain's Jonathan Tiernan-Locke finished 19th after riding a terrific race in which he had followed an attack from Alberto Contador to bridge across from the peloton to catch two groups further ahead on the road. Belgium were among the countries that worked hard to chase that dangerous looking front group down, and with two laps of the closing circuit left, a front group of around 70 riders had formed.
Andrew Talansky of the USA attacked inside the penultimate lap and was joined by Britain's Ian Stannard, who dropped his fellow attacker on the Cauberg but was caught by the chasing bunch at the top of the climb. On the day when Mark Cavendish's reign as world champion came to an end, the British rider was the consummate team player today, putting in some big turns at the front of the bunch during the first half of the race to keep an early break in check.
Gilbert had proved almost unbeatable in one-day races during 2011, but struggled to recapture that form during the opening months of this season following his switch from Omega Pharma-Lotto to BMC Racing.
Two stage victories during the Vuelta, which finished a fortnight ago, proved that he was back on form and it wouldn’t have been lost on his rivals that both came on stages featuring tough finishing climbs in Barcelona and Lastrilla.
It took a big effort from Gilbert’s Belgium team mates to ensure that the race came back together ahead of a frantic final two laps, however.
With the pace high early on, it took a while for a break to become established, with a wave of attacks brought back until Vitaliy Buts of Ukraine and Gatis Smukulis of Latvia got clear almost 40 kilometres into the 267 kilometre race.
Nine more men managed to jump across, including strong riders such as Spain’s Pablo Lastras, Jerome Coppel of France, Italy’s Dario Cataldo and the Colombian, Winer Anacona.
With Great Britain setting the pace at the front of the peloton, including Cavendish spending long turns on the front, thereby putting an end to any doubt that he might have harboured thoughts of an unlikely win today, the lead group had an advatage of 5 minutes as it headed onto the Cauberg ahead of the first of ten laps of a 16.5 kilometre closing circuit.
Towards the end of the second of those ten laps, on the third climb of the Cauberg, Spain’s Juan Antonio Flecha launched an attack that was followed by Great Britain’s Steve Cummings, with other riders including Italy’s Rinaldo Nocentini and France’s Maxime Bouet also getting across.
Belgium, who had only got Gianni Meersman into that move, were now forced to chase hard at the front of the bunch, and while the Flecha group was closing in on the earlier break, it too was being reeled in by the main group.
By now, Cavendish’s work for the day, and his reign as Britain’s second ever world champion, was at an end. He’d led the peloton up the Cauberg on the first two climbs but dropped off the back of the bunch ahead of the third ascent, his earlier efforts earning him warm applause from the crowd as he headed up it for the final time before dismounting.
With a little under 100 kilometres to go and just over six laps remaining, it seemed as though both groups at the head of the race would be swallowed up by the peloton, but suddenly Alberto Contador followed team mate Flecha’s earlier lead by attacking from the main bunch on the Cauberg, several riders managing to respond to the Vuelta champion’s move.
By the time the leaders crossed the line with six laps to go, positioned 1.7 kilometres beyond the summit of the Cauberg, the two earlier sets of escapees had been joined by the Contador group, which contained France’s Thomas Voeckler, Switzerland’s Michael Albasini and Great Britain’s Jonathan Tiernan Locke.
Now, there was a group of 24 riders off the front of the race, with some countries well represented, including Italy with four riders, France and Spain with three apiece, and Great Britain and Switzerland with two each, and with the group riding hard, it briefly looked like this might be the decisive move as it built a lead of a minute over the chasing peloton.
Led by Belgium, Australia, Colombia and Germany, the main group began to chip away at that advantage, however, and made the catch with two laps remaining, but not before a big crash in the main field forced a further split, and it was a group of less than 50 riders that headed towards the finale that would end with Gilbert’s victory.
“It’s incredible to have won the world title,” reflected the Belgian afterwards. “It’s still difficult to comprehend, it’s all very emotional. I’m especially happy to win here, so close to my home. It’s a local race for me.
“The Belgian team did a huge amount of work and so we deserved this. Bjorn Leukemans positioned me perfectly at the foot of Cauberg. I looked back quickly and then I attacked. The Cauberg climb really suits me and I can use the big ring. I took advantage of that. I got a gap similar to when I won the Amstel Gold Race, so it was perfect.”
Speaking of his claiming the runner-up spot, Norway’s Boasson Hagen commented: It was very good to get second place and we were close to gold. My team mates rode well and did a great job. I am very grateful to them. Gilbert was very strong and there was nothing I could do,"
However, there was talk of a big row in the Spanish camp following the race with Oscar Freire, seeking an outright record fourth victory, said to be incandescent with rage at Valverde, who was apparently supposed to lead him out in the sprint – although quite how that would have changed the result, with Gilbert eventually winning at a canter, remains unclear.
I'm annoyed because my bronze could have been gold,” said Valverde. “I did the right thing chasing after Gilbert. I saw he was going and I reacted, even if it was late.
“We were going to work for Oscar Freire but when I saw that Gilbert had opened a big gap, I decided to attack too.
“I think I did the right thing. It just wasn't possible to follow Gilbert when he made his break. We just didn't get it together.
“There was no collaboration between any of us because we were not far from the line and each of us had a medal in our heads."
Freire’s emotions in the heat of the moment are perhaps understandable. Had he won for an unprecedented fourth time – the 36-year-old’s previous wins came in Verona in 1999 and 2004 and Lisbon in 2001 – he would have carried on in the peloton for another year to show off the rainbow jersey. Having missed out today, however, it could well be that he has ridden his last race.
UCI men's elite road world championship 1 Philippe GILBERT BEL 06:10:41 2 Edvald BOASSON HAGEN NOR +4 3 Alejandro BELMONTE ESP +5 4 John DEGENKOLB GER All at same time 5 Lars BOOM NED 6 Allan DAVIS AUS 7 Thomas VOECKLER FRA 8 Ramunas NAVARDAUSKAS LTU 9 Sergio HENAO COL 10 Oscar FREIRE ESP 11 Rui COSTA POR 12 Tom BOONEN BEL 13 Oscar GATTO ITA 14 Peter SAGAN SVK 15 Fredrik KESSIAKOFF SWE 16 Koen DE KORT NED 17 Michael ALBASINI SUI 18 Assan BAZAYEV KAZ 19 Jonathan TIERNAN-LOCKE GBR 20 Lars Petter NORDHAUG NOR
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.