“If we’ve learned one thing from the classics this season, it’s that they can go early,” said Lotto-Soudal team manager Marc Sergeant before the start of the 101st Tour of Flanders. “Look at E3 Harelbeke. Philippe Gilbert attacked 65 kilometers from the finish and the break stayed away.” Sergeant may have been speaking of E3, but he also correctly predicted Sunday’s Tour of Flanders outcome as Gilbert first attacked with fellow Belgian Tom Boonen 97 kilometers from the finish. Gilbert attacked again on the historic Oude Kwaremont climb and rode to victory, a massive 57 kilometers from the finish.
By James Startt, European Associate to Peloton/Image: Yuzuru Sunada
For the Belgian, victory in Flanders confirmed his return to center-stage in the world’s great one-day races. Sure, the 34-year-old Gilbert has won historic classics like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Amstel Gold Race and the Tour of Lombardy. But ever since winning the 2012 world road championship he struggled to maintain the same dominance. Since signing with the Quick-Step Floors team this season, Gilbert has ridden with renewed consistency. And he showed his winning condition only days earlier in the Three Days of De Panne, the final warm-up to Flanders.
Undoubtedly, Quick-Step has proven to be the perfect fit and Gilbert could not have found a better home than with the world’s greatest classics team.
Indeed, Quick-Step started the day with the power of numbers on its side. The team usually does. But it was uncertain whether Quick-Step had the overwhelming individual. Could Gilbert, or teammate and countryman Tom Boonen, match world champion Peter Sagan or Olympic Champion Greg Van Avermaet?
In a day filled with surprises, the answer was yes.
Quick-Step first surprised Sagan and Van Avermaet with their early attack on the legendary Muur in Geraardsbergen, exactly where Gilbert attacked in De Panne earlier in the week. Boonen, riding his last Tour of Flanders, could be seen driving the pace.
Suddenly, Sagan and Van Avermaet found themselves over a minute behind. While neither appeared to panic, allowing their teammates to control the gap, another surprise destroyed their chances as they raced up the Kwaremont for the second time with less than 20 kilometers remaining.
Only moments after splintering the chase group with a blistering acceleration on the Kwaremont, Sagan came crashing to the ground as he appeared to hit the foot of a metal crowd a barrier. With no time to release his hands from the handlebars, Sagan crashed hard, hitting his head on the jagged cobbles. Clearly stunned, he was slow to remount his bike, continuing on, although his chance to defend his Flanders title was clearly over.
“It was a complicated race but I felt I was in good form and in a position that would have allowed me to reach Gilbert in the final stretch,” Sagan said afterward. “Unfortunately, my crash at the Oude Kwaremont meant it was all over. I don’t know how I crashed but these things are a part of cycling.”
Van Avermaet fell with him. And although he managed to quickly get up and continue, his chance for victory was erased. Impressively, he would finish second.
With the chase in chaos, Gilbert continued to drive toward the finish, riding within himself up the Paterberg, the final climb, and pacing toward his fifth monument victory.
“Tom [Boonen] went full gas and really did a big pull,” Gilbert said when describing his winning move the second of three times up the Kwaremont. “He did the first part and then I was taking over, shifting to a big gear when it was flatter. I was looking back and saw I had a gap. I didn’t know what to do! I saw they were pretty far back so I was asking [my team] what to do and they said: ‘just go!”
For Gilbert, winning the Tour of Flanders is another step toward fulfilling his dream of winning all of cycling’s official monuments, Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy. Victory here gives him a new monument to add to Liège and Lombardy. And, next week he will take on the mythic Paris-Roubaix. In principle, he will ride for Boonen, and the four-time winner has announced he will retire at the finish. But Roubaix remains the world’s most unpredictable race and Gilbert is riding in a state of grace right now.