Philippe Gilbert returned to the Ronde van Vlaanderen for the first time in five years and in doing so he forever left his mark on the race that this year celebrated its 101st edition. The Belgian Champion, who joined the Quick-Step Floors Team from Team BMC Racing at the end of last season, made his decisive attack on the long and iconic Oude Kwaremont climb with more than 50 kilometers to go, leaving behind the group that had formed on another legendary climb, Muur-Kapelmuur, with 95 kilometers remaining.
The newly-formed group included three Quick-Step team members – Tom Boonen, Gilbert and Matteo Trentin – who were joined by eleven riders from competing teams. The margin was a mere 15 seconds at the beginning, but the Quick-Step trio quickly moved to the front and did some huge turns, thereby increasing the lead to 40 seconds ahead of Kanarieberg. Behind, the peloton started chasing, but the Quick-Step boys relentlessly continued to pull away, with Boonen, who was taking part in his final Ronde van Vlaanderen, a prominent rider at the front, keen on keeping his promise of concluding his Ronde van Vlaanderen palmares in style - a race he has won three times.
With 55 kilometers left, on the second ascent of Oude Kwaremont, the gap began to shrink. Gilbert decided it was the right time for him to attack, hoping to distance himself from the other race favorites on the climb first used in the race in 1974. Gilbert pushed ahead solo, while his teammates dutifully marked the remaining rivals who tried to reel him in. Not even the Koppenberg with its 22 percent maximum gradient could stand in the way of the Belgian National Champion, whose legendary ride helped him form a lead of 1 minute with the race approaching its final hour.
On the Taaienberg, the 15th climb of the day, just as the bunch was making contact with the first group, disaster struck for road cycling legend Tom Boonen, who needed a bike change because of a mechanical problem. On the same climb, Peter Sagan (Team Bora-Hansgrohe) attacked and started his pursuit of Gilbert. The world champion was followed by Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) and Oliver Naesen (AG2R). Despite the firepower that group possessed, all they could do by the bottom of Oude Kwaremont was to take back ten seconds on the dominant race leader.
As Gilbert continued to push on the pedals at the front and get closer and closer to the finish, Sagan was hit by a roadside banner with 20 kilometers to go and crashed, taking Naesen and Van Avermaet with him. They all got up quickly, but a black cycling jacket caught in Naesen's wheel complicated matters further. Meanwhile, by riding on the other side of the road, Dylan Van Baarle of Team Cannondale bikes - Drapac had avoided the crash, but instead of using the golden opportunity that had arisen for him to attack wildly and aim for a remarkable second place finish behind race leader Gilbert, Van Baarle chose to continue his ride at a fast pace, but clearly waiting for the powerful group of chasers to rejoin him.
Van Baarle, Van Avermaet and Niki Terpstra eventually formed a chase group. Lacking support from Terpstra, whose leader was in front, they only managed to reduce the lead margin by 20 seconds.
It was only in the final kilometers that Philippe Gilbert started looking over his shoulder and signaling and yelling at various spectators along the roads. Seeing the chase trio was a long way back, he decided to celebrate his fourth victory in a Monument race, by raising his Specialized bike over his head and crossing the finish line while being applauded by the thousands of passionate cycling fans in the finish zone, who witnessed the first win of a Belgian National Champion in Ronde van Vlaanderen since 2008. The victory came as a result of a 55km-long solo breakaway - the longest in the race in nearly five decades.
The first chasers arrived 28 seconds later. Greg Van Avermaet sprinted to second place and Niki Terpstra rounded out the podium after not taking any turns at the lead of the chase group, thus leaving Dylan van Baarle to cross the line in fourth position following his strong performance.
"We won as a team today and everyone deserves to be on the podium, so a big thanks goes to all the guys, because they did a huge workload. After Tom initiated that move on the Muur, we continued to push and decided to go full gas on the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. Tom did a big pull just ahead of the hill, I took over as the road began to rise and soon noticed I opened a small gap and never looked back again. Many people thought I was crazy to attack 55 kilometers out, myself included, but I didn’t go that hard, because I was aware the final 15 kilometers were very tough, so I kept some energy which I knew would prove very useful for that last part of the race", said Philippe Gilbert, only the second Wallon rider in history to triumph at De Ronde.
"It would a better feeling if I was on the podium," Van Baarle explained after a brief recovery phase in the finish zone. "We raced for the win, and we got fourth place. I can be happy about my race, but less happy about the result. I knew when Niki (Terpstra) was with us that he would be fresh for the sprint, and Van Avermaet is always hard to beat."
Joining the Quick-Step Floors Team ahead of this season gave 34-year-old Gilbert the possibility to return to Ronde van Vlaanderen after a five-year hiatus, a race at which he has already podiumed twice on the old course. Gilbert, who lined up at the start coming off the back of an overall victory in this year's Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, credited his pre-season preparation as the key behind his magnificent success.
"I've felt good since winter, when I trained with the rest of the team in Denia. The motivation was also there, as I knew I still had it in me and Quick-Step Floors was the right team to be in. Then, going into Omloop, the form was there, but you couldn’t see that on TV because I was caught behind a crash, and I've continuously felt stronger with every race I did," Gilbert explained to Roadcycling.com after being celebrated on the podium.
The day was a historical one for the Belgian Champion, who became the fourth rider who has ever won the World Championships, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and the Giro di Lombardia during his career - thus a tremendous feat.
"When I approached the final kilometer, I looked behind and saw the chasers were still a long way back and thought of a nice way of celebrating my own success. That’s why I jumped off my bike and raised it over my head when I crossed the finish line, because it was an important part of my victory. I’m really proud of how I managed today’s race and of what I've achieved," Gilbert said.