While football may forever adorn the back pages in Great Britain, in Belgium, ahead of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, it was Philippe Gilbert’s name plastered across the country’s newspapers – and on television and radio for that matter.
No pressure then, Philippe, after a brace of victories in the Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallone left the Omega Pharma-Lotto man on the brink of a hat-trick of Ardennes Classics’ triumphs.
And boy did he know it, greeted by a huge cheer at the rider sign-in on Sunday morning. I was there to watch the race as a guest of Belgian bike manufacturer Ridley, who had plotted a route that let us see the start of La Doyenne, ‘the oldest’ [Classic], as well as two key climbs and the finish back in Liège.
There is little like the buzz that swamps the roadside as the peloton approaches in a major race. First the sponsors’ caravan passed through, with sweets, caps and bottles flung from the windows, leaving children, dressed head to toe in team kit, and grown men alike scrambling on the tarmac.
Then, 45 minutes later, the television helicopters thudded into view and, from our first position on the Côte de Wanne, the lead group, an eight-man break, tackled the ascent, first visible as a rainbow of colour on the valley floor, set against the lush green meadows and slowly scrambling into focus.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the final Spring Classic – but this is no pre-holiday parade. There are 11 classified climbs – reasonably short but lung-bursting in their steepness, as is typical in the Ardennes – to conquer. Cycling’s hard men – fondisti, or men with a superior level of stamina and strength, according to four-time winner Italian Moreno Argentin – often win here and Eddy Merckx has five victories to his name. In fact, there is a statue of the great man at the summit of the Stockeu.
Vacansoleil-DCM’s Thomas de Gendt, another Belgian, set the tempo up the climb and rounded the final bend at a pace incomparable to my 100km route reconnaissance on a Ridley Excalibur 24 hours earlier. The group reached the summit three minutes ahead of the peloton before staying ahead in various forms until the penultimate climb, Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, with de Gendt winning the day’s mountains classification.
With the race gone, we moved on to Côte de la Redoute, racing the peloton to arrive 15 minutes before they take on the eighth climb, which rears up to near 20 per cent, putting tired legs, with more than 220km in them, on the line.
The break, having suffered a long, tortuous day in the saddle under unseasonably warm spring sunshine, has all but evaporated to leave Gilbert and the Leopard-Trek Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, to go fight it out – a mouth-watering finale. And Gilbert, a powerful finisher, duly showed that two brains are not always smarter than one, outfoxing the duo in the final sprint to beat Frank into second and leave Andy, third, the nearly man again, after his late Amstel attack failed to stop Gilbert.
It completes a truly superb spring for Belgian riders. Gilbert has led the charge but Johan Van Summeren’s Paris-Roubaix triumph, Nick Nuyens’ Tour of Flanders victory and Tom Boonen’s Ghent-Wevelgem win has left the country’s riders as undisputed kings of one-day races.
And so, with Gilbert across the line in first, and just as six hours previous at the départ, the Omega Pharma-Lotto bus is swamped by swarms of fans seeking out the champion’s autograph. After all, cycling is Belgium’s national sport. And, in ‘Phil’, they have another national hero.