Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert stormed to a stunning men’s road race world title today in Limburg to take the coveted Rainbow Jersey.
The 30-year-old launched an attack on the eleventh and final ascent of the famous Cauberg climb and then sprinted away from his rivals in the final 1.7km to finish the 267km route in 6h 10m 41 seconds. Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen took second, four seconds down on Gilbert, while Spain’s Alejandro Valverde grabbed third.
"It's incredible. It hasn't sunk in yet. I've been dreaming of this for years," said Gilbert, winner of two stages in last month's Vuelta a Espana. "To win in Valkenburg is amazing - it's so close to home and my wife is from the Netherlands. The team worked so hard and everyone did a really good job today. We definitely deserved to win the gold medal. I've won the Amstel Gold Race here twice so I knew I could do it today."
Gilbert was in a group of 48 riders that had formed with 16km to go. While the riders were expected to be spread out due to the undulating parcours, in reality it was far different with a number of the favourites close together on the final approach to the 1500 metre Cauberg climb.
Teammates Tom Boonen, Bjorn Leukemans and Gianni Meersman helped get bookies favourite Gilbert into position at the front of the group and then it was left up to the Belgian to launch the attack, which proved too strong for his rivals.
The race organisers had split this year’s route in the South of Holland into two distinct sections. The first 100km was a run-in to Valkenburg, where riders would then take on a 16.5km circuit ten times, which included the Cauberg and Bemelerburg climbs.
With this is mind teams were quick to make their moves and with 45km gone 11 riders had broken away, including Pablo Lastras (Spain), Dario Cataldo (Italy), Timothy Duggan and Alex Howes (both USA), Jerome Coppel (France), Winner Anacona (Colombia), Luka Mezgec (Slovenia), Vladimir Isaichev (Russia), Vitaliy Buts and Fabricio Ferrari (both Ukraine), and Gatis Smukulis (Latvia).
128km in and with the gap at around 4m 30s, a nine-man group led by Spain’s Juan Antonio Flecha broke away from the peloton to chase down the initial lead group. The peloton had been led out for the majority of the day by the reigning world champion Mark Cavendish, who later retired following his efforts.
The lead group of 11 riders managed to maintain a gap between the chase group until 80km to go, when another smaller splinter group led by Vuelta a Espana winner Alberto Contador also managed to bridge the gap and join them to create a 30 strong lead pack. Britain’s Jonathan Tiernan Locke, Great Britain’s principal rider coming into the event, was among those who followed Contador’s move and got into a strong position coming into the final laps around Valkenburg.
The 30-strong lead pack forced the peloton to act. Belgium and Australia both had potential winners with Gilbert and Simon Gerrans and were quick to reel in the leading group, who if left to their own devices could have built an unbridgeable gap.
With 20km to go a 48-strong group had formed, including Valverde, Boonen, Great Britain’s Ian Stannard and Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali. Although many expected early breaks, it was not until the final charge up the Cauberg that Gilbert made his move.
Tiernan Locke eventually finished 19th overall while the hotly-tipped Slovak Peter Sagan took 14th.