Philippe Gilbert is the new world road race champion.
The Belgian sprinted clear of an elite group at the end of a grueling and engaging 265km race that included a final 165km contested over 10 laps of a circuit that contained ascents of the Bemelerberg and Cauberg.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway) was second, while Spain’s Alejandro Valverde was third.
Gilbert said: “It’s just so special. I’ve won big classics, but it’s just a one day race and maybe no-one remembers.
“Now I will wear this jersey everyday for the next 12 months, also in training because I’m so proud of it. It’s just crazy.”
Great Britain’s Jon Tiernan-Locke was nineteenth after a hugely impressive ride in which he proved equal to the accelerations of all but Gilbert.
British champion, Ian Stannard, delivered stirling service in support of Tiernan-Locke, and team-mate, Steve Cummings, was a key player in an early move. 2011 champion, Mark Cavendish, abandoned early after fulfilling his commitment to defend the jersey. Bradley Wiggins also abandoned.
With 90km to go, Laurens Ten Dam (Holland) drove a peloton headed by his Dutch teammates and the Belgians, and reeled in a group that contained Cummings.
No sooner had they been caught than Alberto Contador (Spain) attacked, splitting the peloton with five laps remaining, but among those who stayed with the recently crowned Vuelta a Espana champion were Tiernan-Locke and Cummings. The Contador group quickly established a lead of nearly a minute over a Belgian-driven peloton.
With 200km covered, a crash at the back of the peloton ended the chances of the Czech Republic’s Roman Kreuziger, who waited an age for a support car while Columbia drove the peloton. Meanwhile in the breakaway, the efforts of France and Italy stabilised the lead of the escapees at 1.08.
As the leaders hit the iconic climb of the race for the eleventh time, the peloton shattered behind the pace of Columbia’s Rigoberto Uran, creating an elite selection that included Peter Sagan (Slovakia) and Gilbert. The 25-strong lead group of Contador, driven hard by Spanish teammate Juan Antonio Flecha, lost just 20 seconds across the Cauberg, and with 60km to go, retained a lead of 48 seconds.
A lap later, Spain’s Pablo Lastra’s buried himself on the Cauberg before peeling off, followed moments later by the French rider, Maxime Bouet. Spain’s indefatigable Flecha took up pace making again, followed by a releaxed looking Tiernan-Locke. Flecha’s efforts shed a further eight riders from the leading group, reducing their number to 17.
A big crash at 220km took out a large number of riders from the rear of the peloton, in an event described in commentary by David Millar as a ‘race changer’. Sagan was among the contenders clear of the crash, but who lost his entire team as a consequence of it. The home nation had five riders, including Laurens Ten Dam, caught up in the collision.
The leaders continued undeterred, but on the penultimate ascent of the Cauberg, a German driven peloton homed in on the leaders, prompting Contador, Voeckler, and a comfortable Tiernan-Locke to attempt to drive clear of the breakaway, but they were soon swallowed by the bunch.
Andrew Talansky (USA) launched off the front on the penultimate ascent of the Bemelerberg. Only British champion Stannard was able to respond, and the brace swiftly formed an alliance, establishing a lead of 13 seconds before being caught just before the final ascent of the Cauberg.
Attacks came thick and fast in the next few kilometres. Voeckler jumped clear but was soon reeled in by Stannard. Nibali launched immediately, but was unable to shake the British champion, who was joined by Ireland’s Dan Martin.
Five Spaniards, Belgium’s two leaders, as well as Sagan, Boasson Hagen and Kolobnev, were among the final selection. With five kilometres to go, all the big contenders, barring Voeckler and his French teammates, were in place, with Stannard protecting Tiernan-Locke.
Nibali buried himself on the final ascent of the Cauberg, but only one man was strong enough to hold his wheel and then pass him: Gilbert. Once committed, he was uncatchable, his cause aided by indecision among a chasing trio of Valverde, Boasson-Hagen, and Kolobnev.
Gilbert, a Wallonian, and former Amstel Gold Race winner, said he was delighted to win on the Cauberg.