LIEGE, Belgium, April 24, 2011 – Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert of Omega Pharma etched his name into cycling’s history books Sunday with a maiden victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege which gave him a rare ‘Ardennes Classics’ Grand Slam.
Luxembourg siblings Andy and Frank Schleck, of Leopard-Trek, finished second and third respectively after nearly six and a half hours of racing in the hilly Belgian Ardennes.
The Schlecks had been expected to use their climbing prowess to try and eliminate Gilbert on one of the last of the race’s 10 short but tough climbs.
However their attacks failed to materialize and Gilbert, in the form of his life, launched an unrivalled sprint for the finish line inside the final 400 meters.
“He was the strongest,” lamented Andy Schleck, who won the race in 2009 when he launched a decisive attack on the penultimate climb, the Roche aux Faucons.
“There was nothing we could do. He stayed calm and had his team working well for him throughout the day. We tried and tried until the end, but it wasn’t to be.”
Gilbert’s triumph sparked huge celebrations around French-speaking Wallonia. Not only is he the first Belgian to win the race since 1999, he is also the first Walloon to conquer Liege since Joseph Bruyere in 1978.
In doing so he completed the rare feat of winning all three ‘Ardennes Classics’ after his Fleche Wallonne win Wednesday followed victory at the Amstel Gold race a week ago.
“It’s just an incredible day for me, it’s unbelievable,” said Gilbert.
“It was a tough day but I did my best to stay calm, concentrate on my race and not let myself get carried away with emotions or what was happening on the roadside. I’ve been in the best form of my life recently, and these past 10 days have just been incredible.”
The 28-year-old Belgian becomes just the second rider to complete the hat-trick after Italian rider Davide Rebellin in 2004.