E3 Harelbeke: Gilbert takes second podium in three days
After making the key selection on the Paterberg and ensuring the move will stick by doing some huge pulls, the Belgian Champion finished runner-up in Harelbeke.
Philippe Gilbert showcased again his strong form and fantastic skills on the cobbles by nabbing a second consecutive podium this week, 48 hours after being part of the Quick-Step Floors set-up which helped Yves Lampaert crown himself champion at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Also on Friday, Quick-Step Floors was in the spotlight, leading the peloton as they headed to the Taaienberg (aka "Boonenberg)", where the race kicked off in spectacular fashion as soon as five-time winner Tom Boonen put down the hammer and forced a split. Less than 20 men made it to the front, and Philippe Gilbert was again there, just as he was two days ago, when he booked a place in the elite group on the Berendries and dictated the rhythm of the race.
The Belgian Champion was the heart and soul of the 10-man group which emerged somewhere between Taaienberg and Boigneberg, doing some long and super impressive pulls at the front so the leaders could take their advantage over the peloton led by Katusha and Trek-Segafredo to one minute. Then, on the steep and windy Paterberg, the day's 12th hellingen, Philippe moved to the front and decided to go deep, accelerating and splitting the break on the tough cobbles of the 700m-long climb.
A trio containing Philippe Gilbert, Oliver Naesen (AG2R) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) was left in the lead with 40 kilometers to go and kept pushing hard over the cobbles and the bergs and at the same time they took their margin to a point it became clear they will not be seen by the chasers until after the finish. Going into the last two kilometers of the race, the three began playing the traditional cat-and-mouse game, and it was only in the run-in to the line, with 300 meters to go, that this stopped and the fight for victory began.
Naesen was the first to move in the tactical and tense sprint which came at the end of 206 tough kilometers, Van Avermaet responded and was immediately followed by Gilbert, who pushed a huge gear and gave everything to come around his countryman, but in the end had to be content with second place, his best ever result in five participations at E3 Harelbeke, which this year celebrated its 60th edition. Thanks to him and to the 8th place of Tom Boonen – who made his final appearance here – Quick-Step Floors opened a 516-point advantage over the second placed squad in the World Tour standings.
"We did a great race today and all the guys did a marvelous job, covering the moves of our rivals and keeping me in a good position. Over the top of the Taaienberg, we had a gap, and although I wasn't sure that group will stick, I decided to give it a go, so from that moment on it was full gas all the way to the finish line in Harelbeke", said the 34-year-old Quick-Step Floors rider.
"In the sprint, Naesen surprised me when he opened his sprint and I hesitated for a second. That, and the headwind, made it really hard to get back in the front. It's a pity, because I was there and could have won, but that's racing. I'm looking at the bright side of things, which is that my form is good and I've rediscovered those sensations that make me feel at ease on the cobbles. In these races, you have to work hard to get into the best position and to keep it. I really like this. I found again my fighting spirit and this makes me happy. I'm back!", concluded Gilbert, who will now take a short break before lining out at the start of next week's Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde.
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele