Philippe Gilbert (BMC) put himself in a fantastic position to win the Ster ZLM Toer for the third time in his career when he won today’s queen stage in his preferred terrain in the Belgian Ardennes. Having used his team to animate the stage all day, he was clearly the strongest in the uphill sprint in La Gileppe, putting 3 seconds into Tim Wellens (Lotto Belisol) and 6 seconds into Paul Martens (Belkin) to take the leader’s jersey off Marcel Kittel’s shoulders.
Three days ago Philippe Gilbert proved that he is in excellent condition ahead of the Belgian championships when he won the prologue in the Ster ZLM Toer. When he lost the leader’s jersey to Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) one day later, he claimed to be unconcerned as he expected to take it back in today’s queen stage in the Belgian Ardennes.
Gilbert lived up to his promises as he was in a class of his own when it all came down to an uphill sprint in La Gileppe at the end of a hard ride on his Wallonian home soil. All day his BMC team had tried to make things as hard as possible on the many climbs that included well-known ascents like Cote de la Redoute and Col du Rosier and later in the stage they had sent Ben Herman off in an attack to force the others on the defensive.
The plan was always to set Gilbert up for the uphill sprint which suited him perfectly and when a late 4-rider break had been brought back, it turned out just as BMC had planned. Gilbert paid back his teammates for their hard work by launching one of his trademark accelerations and no one could keep his wheel.
His young compatriot Tim Wellens got closest but at the line, the Lotto rider had lost 3 seconds. 3 second further adrift, Paul Martens took third while Gianni Meersman (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) led a small group to the finish with a time loss of 10 seconds.
The stage was held on a 186.7km route from Hotel Verviers to La Gileppe and was a very hilly run through the Ardennes. The first part contained several climbs, including the Col du Rosier and the Cote de la Redoute, and it all came to an end with two laps of a hard finishing circuit that included a short climb to the line.
Early in the stage, Huub Dijn (De Rijke), Wout van Aert (Vastgoedservice), Michael Vanthourenhout (Sunweb) and Quinten Hermans (Telenet) escaped and they were joined by Nicola Testi (Androni), Timo Roosen (Rabobank) and Dries Hollanders (Metec) to form a 7-rider front group. Ronan van Zandbeek (De Rijke) also tried to make it across but never made the junction.
While Hollanders picked up a lot of KOM points and Roosen sprint points, the gap went up to 3.25 before BMC took over the pace-setting. On the Col de Rosier, they dropped the hammer and at the top, the advantage was only 1.20.
BMC again slowed down a bit and at the bottom of the Redoute, the advantage was again 2.35. This time BMC used a different tactic as they launched Herman off in an attack and after a long chase he made the junction to make it 8 riders in the break.
OPQS had taken control of the peloton that was now 2.25 behind but as they approached the next climb, they brought it down to 1.30. On the slopes, the front group exploded and at the top, only van Aert, Hermans, Hermans and Vanthourenhout were still left.
The peloton had split to pieces and race leader Marcel Kittel had come into difficult on the ascent. Behind the leaders, a group with Martens, Meersman, Petr Vakoc, Gilbert, Samuel Sanchez, Wellens, Testi, Bjorn Leukemans, Rob Ruijgh, Roosen and Hollanders had formed but that group was caught a little later.
Kittel was now back in contention and with 35km to go, the four leaders were caught. This was the signal for Stijn Steels (Topsport) to launch an attack and he managed to build a 35-second advantage. Lars Bak (Lotto Belisol), Julien Vermote (OPQS) and Jarno Gmelich Meijling (Metec) bridged the gap and now it was a fierce pursuit between the peloton – led by BMC – and the front quartet.
They managed to build a 45-second advantage but as BMC upped the pace, they started to lose ground. With the gap down to 25 seconds, Steels fell off the pace while Kittel got dropped from the peloton. In the end, BMC managed to bring it back together for a sprint where Gilbert emerged as the strongest.
Gilbert now takes a 12-second advantage over Wellens into tomorrow’s final stage which is almost completely flat and should suit the sprinters. Only disaster can prevent Gilbert from winning the Ster ZLM Toer for the third time in his career.
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