Gilbert wins Liege-Bastogne-Liege
Sun, 24 Apr 21:29:00 2011
Having won the Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne in imperious fashion, the 28-year-old Belgian started as huge favourite to be the first rider since Davide Rebellin to win all three races.
He lived up to his billing, breaking clear with the Schleck brothers on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, and easily distancing them both in a sprint for the finish line.
All eyes were firmly fixed on Gilbert on the start line. He hails from the town of Remouchamps, the location of the Côte de la Redoute, one of the race's ten climbs.
Unconcerned at being marked out of the race by his rivals, Gilbert freely admitted the race was "the most important one of my career" and had dreamt of winning it since childhood.
His Omega Pharma-Lotto team, evidently keen to avoid the kind of manic chase that took place at Fleche Wallonne, had their work cut out for the first half of the race in keeping a group of 10 breakaway riders - featuring Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana), Eduard Vorganov (Katusha), Jesus Herrada (Movistar), Mathias Frank (BMC), David Le Lay (Ag2r), Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil), Tony Gallopin (Cofidis), Mickael Delage (Française des Jeux), Sebastien Delfosse (Landbouwkrediet) and Yannick Talabardon (Saur-Sojasun) - to a tight four-minute leash.
Tiredness began to set in among the leaders on the Côte de Stockeu, and as their lead began to disintegrate, a high-quality group of nine counter-attackers - featuring Laurens Ten Dam and Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank), Jerome Pineau and Dario Cataldo (Quickstep), Kanstantin Siutsou (HTC), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Enrico Gasparotto (Astana), Giampaolo Caruso (Liquigas), and Biel Kadri (Ag2r) - broke clear of the peloton.
With 65 kilometres to go they bridged the gap to the lead group, from which Le Lay, Delage, Talabardon, Delfosse and Herrada had in the meantime been dropped.
Despite the Trek-Leopard squad setting a punishing pace on the front of the peloton, the 13 leaders worked together remarkably well to extend their lead to a minute 45 seconds with 40 kilometres to go.
The pack began to make back time in earnest on the Côte de la Redoute, 30 kilometres from home, and by the time Frank Schleck and Jakob Fuglsang led the peloton over the crest of the hill, the gap had come down to just 50 seconds, while Gasparotto's pace at the head of the lead group saw Cataldo, Vorganov, Caruso, Gallopin and Frank dropped.
Andy Schleck then made his move at the foot of the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, with brother Frank on his wheel along with Gilbert, while an increase in pace from Gasparotto blew the lead group to pieces, with only Greg van Avermaet and Jerome Pineau able to stay on his wheel.
The Schlecks and Gilbert charged up the Côte to bridge the gap to Gasparotto's group, before Pineau, and then Gasparotto himself, were dropped.
The two Schlecks and Gilbert then worked together well to distance the Astana and Katusha-led peloton to ensure the finish would be fought out between the group of four, which then became three as Van Avermaet fell back on the Côte de St. Nicolas, the final climb of the day.
Despite the Schlecks' pre-race acknowledgement that they were keen to avoid taking Gilbert to a sprint, it was the Belgian who launched the only attack on the St. Nicolas, immediately distancing Andy Schleck, though the younger of the two brothers fought back to his rival's wheel on the subsequent flat section.
It was to little avail, however, as neither brother posed much threat to Gilbert in the sprint, and when he launched his final kick just over 100 metres from the line, the race was settled.