Philippe Gilbert rides to Belgium Tour’s leader jersey
In just his second race day after a five-week break, the Belgian Champion sprinted to second and moved to the top of the overall standings.
An aggressive race unfolded Thursday at the five-day event once the riders hit the final 60 kilometers, which included three climbs: Schomminkelstraat (1100m, 5.5%), Monteberg (1100m, 5.4%) and Kemmelberg (800m, 7.1%). The last one – a regular feature on the course of Gent-Wevelgem – was the stage's critical point and it was there that the peloton splintered, only 13 riders being left at front.
Until that moment, Quick-Step Floors was again one of the most prominent teams, taking long turns in the bunch and scratching off the advantage of the quintet who jumped clear after the first kilometers of the stage between Knokke-Heist and Moorslede (199 kilometers).
Once the race was reshuffled on the punishing and treacherous cobbles of the Kemmelberg, only 13 riders were left at the front, including Quick-Step Floors' Philippe Gilbert and Julien Vermote. The attackers changed turns and helped the group extend the 25-second gap they possessed after the last hill to a full minute, but once the peloton put together a concerted chase behind, the gap began to melt.
In the end, the 20 seconds separating the two group inside the last 2500 meters proved decisive, as the riders who emerged after the Kemmelberg fought for the win in Moorslede, which was hosting a stage finish for the first time in history. Former cyclo-cross world champion Mathieu van der Poel (Beobank-Corendon) had the upper hand thanks to his explosive skills and took the spoils, but Philippe Gilbert finished a close second and moved into the red jersey thanks to the bonus seconds he took on the line.
Julien Vermote, who was quintessential in the group's successful attempt of going all the way to the line, was ninth on the stage, just a few seconds back, helping Quick-Step Floors jump to first place in the team classification.
"You could sense everyone was nervous ahead of the cobbled climbs, because we were aware it was going to be a crucial point of the stage. A group pulled away there and at one moment we enjoyed a one-minute advantage over the chasers, but with the finish line nearing, people started thinking about the win and the gap came down. I wanted the stage victory, but Van der Poel was faster, so kudos to him. Despite that, I am happy with taking the leader's jersey; let's see now what Friday's individual time trial will bring", said Philippe Gilbert, a winner of the Belgium Tour six years ago.
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele