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News feature, March 2, 2008
Gilbert does it the Merckxian way
By Brecht Decaluwé in Gent
With a blistering attack on the Eikenberg, Belgian star Philippe Gilbert hammered away from a group including big guns Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Thor Hushovd and Leif Hoste, on what seemed an impossible mission: the Française des Jeux rider had 50 kilometres to bridge up to the breakaway, beat them and claim victory on a windy, hilly and cobbled course. Eventually, though, the French speaking Belgian succeeded and claimed his second career win in the Omloop Het Volk, also known as the mini Tour of Flanders.
With a storm raging through Flanders the night before, the riders were heading for a tough race. Combine this with the new course, re-designed in part by triple Het Volk winner Peter Van Petegem, and it was clear the race would be a lot harder than in the past.
"It was a weird race," said Gilbert. "The start was very nervous, but pretty soon I figured I was stronger than the others."
The attack from Gilbert came just after some impressive work from the Quick Step team that reduced the amount of riders in the front rows of the peloton. "Just before we reached the Eikenberg there was a crash in the peloton and we were approaching the climb with only a small group of riders," he recalled.
"I felt really good and as I looked around the only thing I saw was fatigue. I told [Mickael] Delage to pull hard until we reached the foot of the Eikenberg and from there on I took over and gave all I had until I reached the top."
At first, Cofidis' Nick Nuyens was able to hold Gilbert's wheel, but as the Française des Jeux rider caught and passed early attackers Roy Sentjes and William Bonnet, Nuyens dropped back. At the top of the climb there was a huge gap behind but the eventual winner couldn't decide what to do next. "I looked back and realized it would take a while before someone would bridge up. Ten kilometres later I was still on my own and figured I had to hammer those pedals as hard as I could until I reached the finish."
Fifteen kilometres later, Gilbert had bridged up to the first of the breakaway riders, who were no longer riding together, and eventually reeled them all in. With 21 kilometres remaining he attacked the breakaway group on the final stretches of the tough cobbles at the 'Lange Munte', meaning 'Long Mountain'.
Gilbert explained that he had no other choice but to get rid of his companions in front. "My team-mate Arnaud Gerard pulled at 100 percent when we reached the cobbles and I attacked when there was only one kilometre to go on the Lange Munte because afterwards it's much harder to drop someone; the roads are asphalted and flat."
Sébastien Minard was able to hold on for a moment, just like his team leader Nick Nuyens had done on the Eikenberg, but pretty soon he too had to let go of Gilbert. "I didn't look back once I attacked, because that's not good for the morale," the Wallonian explained.
Team manager Marc Madiot was going mad in the car as he screamed his rider towards the finish on the Charles de Kerckhovelaan in Gent - the same spot where Gert Steegmans grabbed the flowers ahead of team-mate Tom Boonen during Stage 2 of the Tour de France last year. "He [Madiot] has more vista than I, but it surely helped," Gilbert laughed.
Madiot himself couldn't quite believe the effort from his team leader. "My job was to bring him to a euphoric state, and I think it helped him to pull off a 'Merckxian' show," Madiot said, referring to the legendary Belgian cyclist, the Cannibal Eddy Merckx, who simply destroyed the competition with long distance breakaways whenever he could.
With this victory the 25 year-old wins the Omloop Het Volk for a second time, in 2006 he won after a solo of only 7 kilometres, and now joins other two-time winners Eddy Merckx and Johan Museeuw on the race's winners list."It's the most beautiful day of my life," Gilbert beamed with pride. "I had great legs and luckily I could profit from that today."
With this great victory and his two early season wins in Mallorca, Philippe Gilbert will surely be one of the major favourites for the first classic of the season, La Primavera Milano-Sanremo. "It's the race I want most of all and with these wins under my belt I'll start with less pressure than the others as I've managed to accomplish something already," he said.
"If you have the chance to take a win, you can't let it slip away," Gilbert said, when asked if he might be peaking too early in the season. With four wins already under his belt after only 14 race days, the Belgian clearly lives up to these words.
Aside from Milano-Sanremo, Gilbert hopes for success in the major Belgian Spring Classics and also has his sights on the Beijing Olympics. "Tour of Flanders? It's longer than the Omloop, but why not? Maybe this will be my year. And I'm pretty sure my best years are still to come."