Cyclist Philippe Gilbert’s tour de force on the Cauberg climb during Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race did more than bring him a third title in the Netherlands, it also established him as the favourite for Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne.
In a stunning demonstration of power and acceleration, the 31-year-old Belgian demonstrated he was back to the form that brought him an Ardennes Classics treble in 2011.
Back then, he won his second Amstel Gold Race before going on to add Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege success as well.
And last Sunday, when Gilbert attacked inside the final 3km on the steepest part of the punishing Cauberg climb, his ability to accelerate away from the competition and win by five seconds left his rivals gasping in awe and wonder.
“Gilbert was the strongest in the race. We saw that when he attacked on the Cauberg that we was strong enough to maintain that until the finish,” said Australian Simon Gerrans, who had to settle for third in Valkenburg.
Gilbert’s show of strength has left some riders’ confidence a little dented ahead of the Fleche Wallonne, with even Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, the 2006 Fleche winner, struggling to find answers.
“It’s clear that winning is always very difficult and we have to congratulate Gilbert. He was way superior to the rest of us,” said the 33-year-old Movistar rider, fourth in the Amstel.
However, as a double winner in Liege as well, Valverde is sure he can still compete in the next two races this week.
“I’ve shown that I can win. I can be up there, whether I actually do win or not. Either way, chapeau to Gilbert,” he added.
Gilbert’s main competition at Fleche was expected to come from the Russian Katusha team and Spanish pair Dani Moreno and Joaquim Rodriguez.
But the latter crashed out of Amstel after 80km and, although he expected to ride, he was unsure of his condition.
Rodriguez, the 2012 winner atop the Mur de Huy, had an X-ray following his Amstel crash and admitted that he might not be fully fit until next month’s Giro d’Italia.
“It will possibly be difficult these next few days in the Classics but I’ll definitely start the Giro,” he said on Twitter.
If Rodriguez does start fully fit, it could pre-empt a thrilling battle between Gilbert and Katusha.