Gilbert’s world championship victory was predictably brilliant
Philippe Gilbert (R) of Belgium speaks with teammate Tom Boonen. AFP PHOTO / POOL
In sport, surprise is an important weapon. Predictability is an albatross around the neck of even the most talented athletes, especially so in a sport like professional cycling where tactics play such an important role in victory.
That Philippe Gilbert did exactly what everyone expected him to do on the way to winning the rainbow jersey on Sunday only adds to the brilliance of his victory.
Everyone with even a casual interest in cycling knew that Gilbert was always going to attack on the Cauberg, and try to blast his opponents off his wheel. His opponents certainly knew it.
Not that it mattered.
Gilbert’s acceleration was so sharp and sustained that nobody could respond, and after 266km of jostling for position and dislodging weaker rivals, the final kilometre may as well have a training ride for the man who treats races in the Ardennes as his own personal birthright.
Gilbert burnt off the best riders in the world with a surge of wattage that could have powered a small Dutch city.
The Spanish team’s carefully agreed plan to lead Oscar Freire to the line disintegrated as Alejandro Valverde hesitated, and then set out to chase the big Belgian. Afterwards, Freire had harsh words for his compatriot, but to my eyes it wouldn’t have mattered – once Gilbert had opened a 10 metre gap his name was practically stamped on the gold medal.
If Valverde hadn’t followed the move, Freire would’ve still been out of the medals.
Earlier, the race had been an intriguing battle between the Spanish and the Belgians, as Juan Antonio Flecha and then Alberto Contador (playing an unfamiliar role as domestique) led attacks which forced the Belgians to take control of the peloton.
The Australians, who had been well represented in the winning group until the base of the final climb of the Cauberg, played a solid hand.
Michael Matthews’ move into the chase group led by Flecha was insurance in case the attack stayed clear, but ultimately the Belgians’ desire to haul their captains Gilbert and Boonen back into the lead group proved too strong.
That suited the Australian plan A, with Simon Gerrans and Allan Davis still well placed in the main group and saving energy for the last lap.
Simon Clarke did several long pulls on the front of the peloton in the final 20km, and with Gerrans, Davis, Heinrich Haussler and David Tanner hovering near the front of the bunch it was all looking good for the green and gold with 4km to go.
Unfortunately in the jostling for position at the bottom of the Cauberg, the Aussies slipped back a few places, and when Gilbert accelerated past Vincenzo Nibali they were simply too far back to go with him.
To be fair, nobody ever looked like holding onto Gilbert’s wheel. Gilbert had three team-mates around him as he launched, as the Belgians stamped their authority on the race yet again.
The chase from Boasson Hagen, Valverde and Kolobnev was swept up on the line, as the Belgian free-wheeled into the rainbow jersey looking every bit the champion.
Allan Davis’ sixth place was a very good result for the Orica-GreenEDGE sprinter, as a disappointed-looking Gerrans faded to finish 21st. Still, in elite company everything has to go right to win the world championships.
On the day Gilbert was simply too good, and his team put him in the perfect position to win. Unstoppable.
Tim Renowden has been following professional cycling closely since Indurain won his first Tour. A former A-grade club athlete, and now a keen recreational cyclist and roller racer, he once rode very slowly up Mont Ventoux. Tim tweets about sport at @timehhh_sp.
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