Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert was crowned King of the World to the roar of the crowd after his perfectly-timed and devastating attack on the last ascent of the Cauberg – the 12th consecutive World Champion to have used the Vuelta to ride into form. If he’d looked back he would have seen the rapidly advancing Viking Edvald Boasson Hagen being hotly pursued by the red-and-black clad Spaniard Alejandro Valverde at the head of the pack, who respectively claimed silver and bronze.
Too many cooks spoiled the broth
The day’s first successful break formed after an initial flurry on the 106km route from the centre of Maastricht and included Vitaliy Buts (Ukraine), Gatis Smukulis (Latvia), Winner Anacona (Colombia), Dario Cataldo (Italy), Jerome Coppel (France), Timmy Duggan and Alex Howes (both USA), Fabricio Ferrari (Uruguay), Vladimir Isaichev (Russia), Pablo Lastras (Spain) and Luka Mezgec (Slovenia). They opened up a five-minute lead, largely thanks to a comfort break, before the peloton starting dragging them at the start of the ten laps of the final 16.1km circuit.
The gap to the break was slowly but surely diminishing when, as the peloton approached the Cauberg for the third time, Juan Antonio Flecha (Spain) counter-attacked. He immediately had company with Steve Cummings (Great Britain), Maxime Bouet (France), Gianni Meersman (Belgium), Fumiyuki Beppu (Japan), Michael Schar (Switzerland), Michael Matthews (Australia) and Rinaldo Nocentini (Italy) making the jump with him.
Team GB had been working at the head of the peloton and we were treated to the sight of Mark Cavendish, the defending champion, working to pull back the break until he peeled off after four laps and rode to rousing cheers from the crowd before climbing off his bike.
As the time gaps between the various groups decreased, an attack initiated by Spain’s Alberto Contador on the fourth lap took more riders, which to the delight of those thronging the circuit included Dutchmen Koen de Kort and Robert Gesink, plus Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Britain), Thomas Voeckler (France), Italians Marco Marcato and Diego Ulissi, Switzerland’s Michael Albasini, and Belgium’s Bjorn Leukemans.
This attacking group quickly caught up with the chase group and the enlarged 29-man group was 29 seconds clear of the peloton as it crossed the line with five laps to go. But, despite team work from the French, Italian and Spanish riders, too many riders were just sitting on the back. Everyone came back together on the Cauberg with just over two laps to go.
A crash halfway back in the peloton ended the hopes of a few local likely lads – including Niki Terpstra and Bauke Mollema – as the entire road was blocked. It also ended the ambitions of Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal (Canada), Americans Chris Horner and Tejay van Garderen and Richie Porte (Australia). The crash fractured what was left of the peloton leaving groups of riders all over the road.
Timing is everything
After an abortive attempt by Spain’s Samu Sanchez, Britain’s Ian Stannard attacked on the penultimate lap with American Andrew Talansky, but couldn’t make the break stick and the peloton was back together for the final lap.
On the final lap, the larger teams – Spain, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands – manoeuvred their men into position. Voeckler was still in the mix as was Tiernan-Locke and Slovakia’s Peter Sagan. The Italians fired the first salvo as Luca Paolini led out Vincenzo Nibali with around 5km remaining. Almost immediately, Leukemans led Gilbert up to Nibali’s wheel from where he launched his winning attack.
In the post-race press conference, Gilbert confirmed:
Team instructions had been to ensure that any break was small, that we got a rider in it and it shouldn’t have any Italians and no Spaniards.
Given that Gilbert had punctured early on and had to be paced back to the peloton, he might have been forgiven for thinking that after such an inauspicious start it wasn’t to be his day. But the Belgians kept plugging away – a bit like Gilbert this season.
My form was much better after the Tour [de France] where I worked for my teammates. I built up towards the Olympics where I felt good and found real strength in the Vuelta. I won two stages with a similar finish as in Valkenburg. So that gave me self-confidence, plus my team mates had belief in me.
In the post-race press conference, Philippe Gilbert looked delighted, having slain the remaining monsters from his disappointing season and looking forward to wearing the rainbow jersey in the Giro del Piemonte on Thursday.
The placid runner-up Edvald Boasson Hagen said he was happy to have won silver. He’d felt good all day, stayed in the front of the race, but had been unable to close down a strong Gilbert in the closing kilometres. He thanked the contribution of his two Norwegian teammates.
Bronze medallist Alejandro Valverde revealed his role had been to lead out Oscar Freire, but at the decisive moment he’d realised the finish would not be contested as a small bunch sprint and he’d followed the others who, despite giving it their all, couldn’t get back on terms with the victor.
As the race unfolded, it was obvious that the Spanish and Italian teams, who had possibly concocted their plans across the breakfast table of their shared hotel, were hoping to whittle down the peloton and shake off PhilGil. They burnt their matches wisely but ultimately weren’t able to prevent the inevitable.
1. Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) 6:10:41
2. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway) +0:04
3. Alejandro Valverde (Spain) +0:05
4. John Degenkolb (Germany) same time
5. Lars Boom (Netherlands) s/t
6. Allan Davis (Australia) s/t
7. Thomas Voeckler (France) s/t
8. Ramunas Navardauskas (Lithuania) s/t
9. Sergio Henao (Colombia) s/t
10. Oscar Freire (Spain) s/t