Gilbert, the 34-year-old former world champion, broke clear of a select group on the second ascent of the famous Oude-Kwaremont climb before defying his rivals in the thrilling and incident-packed 101st edition of the cobbled classic.
Carrying an insurmountable going into the home straight, a euphoric Gilbert could soak up the applause from the home crowd before dismounting and carrying his bike over his head across the line.
Earlier, a dramatic crash on the third and final ascent of the Kwaremont brought down the Slovakian defending champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and fellow pre-race favourite Greg van Avermaet (BMC).
While world champion Sagan was unable to fight back into contention, Belgian Olympic champion van Avermaet rallied to rejoin the chasing group before taking second place at the finish ahead of Dutchman Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors). Another Dutchman, Cannondale-Drapac’s Dylan van Baarle, missed out on the final podium place after taking fourth in the sprint as the chasing trio came home 28 seconds down on the winner.
Katusha-Alpecin’s Alexander Kristoff, the 2015 champion from Norway, won the prestige sprint for fifth place as the streamlined pack came home 52 seconds in arrears, with Italians Sacha Modolo (UEA Team Emirates), Filippo Pozzato (Wilier Triestina) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Merida) completing the top ten alongside Germany’s John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie).
"It's a monstrous ride by Philippe Gilbert. I think it will go down as one of the most historic rides in the Tour of Flanders. I cannot remember a ride like this in all my year of commentating," said Eurosport's Sean Kelly, a triple runner-up in the Ronde during his illustrious career.
Day of drama in Flanders
Besides Gilbert’s magnificent ride there were talking points aplenty from Flanders – not least the crash that ended the hopes of pre-race favourites Sagan and van Avermaet.
Chasing down the lone leader on the third ascent of the Kwaremont in the final 20km of the 260.8km race, Sagan rode in the gutter dangerously close to the barriers with van Avermaet and Belgium’s Oliver Naesen (Ag2R-La Mondiale) in hot pursuit.
When Sagan appeared to snare his jersey on an advertisement hoarding, the world champion was catapulted to the ground. Van Avermaet and Naesen – the latter’s back wheel snared by a spectator’s coat – followed suit, although the BMC rider was able to remount and continue leading the chase on his former teammate and compatriot.
Whether he and Sagan could have closed the gap on Gilbert had the incident not occurred will remain a mystery – and there’s no doubt that it did take some of the gloss off what was otherwise a staggering victory.
Earlier in the race, and before Gilbert had made his bold move, Belgium’s Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) crashed heavily from the main pack, taking Welshman Luke Rowe (Team Sky) with him.
Meanwhile, it was a bittersweet day for triple winner Tom Boonen riding his final Ronde van Vlaanderen. Although he was a key component of the day’s decisive move – which came on the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen with 95km remaining – the Belgian veteran suffered a series of mechanical issues on the Taaienberg climb.
Although he dropped out of contention, Boonen was all smiles at the finish after celebrating the victory of his Quick-Step Floors teammate Gilbert, with whom he had made the peloton-splitting acceleration on the Muur.
How the race panned out
Defending champion Sagan started his race as he left off – with a wheelie. 12 months after showboating over the finish in Oudenaarde, Sagan pulled the same trick as he entertained the crowds ahead of the start at Antwerp. Sagan wouldn’t have much to smile about during the rest of the day.
Under blue skies and bright sunshine an eight-man group quickly formed featuring Britain’s Mark McNally (Wanty-Gobert), Italy’s Oliviero Troia (UAE Emirates), Frenchmen Julien Duval (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Julien Morice (Direct Energie), and Belgians Stef Van Zummeren, Michael Goolaerts (both Veranda's Willems Crelan), Edward Planckaert (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise) and André Looij (Roompot).
The lead reached a maximum 12 minutes before the race hit the first of 18 helligen, or climbs, in the Flemish Ardennes. This series of short but sharp cobbled ascents whittled down the peloton and saw the advantage of the break steadily come down.
Ironically, it was on the legendary Muur van Geraardsbergen – back in the race after a six-year absence, albeit with 95km still remaining – where Gilbert sowed the seeds of his victory. It was deemed a sentimental addition to the race, but the Muur proved key when Quick-Step Floors threw down the hammer with a three-pronged attack through Gilbert, Boonen and Trentin.
Soon a select chasing group of 14 riders formed around that trident, featuring Vanmarcke, Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Chavanel and Bryan Coquard (both Direct Energie), Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Maciej Bodnar (Bora-Hansgrohe), Rowe and Gianni Moscon (both Team Sky), Modolo (Bahrain Merida) and Pieter Vanspreybrouck (Wanty-Groupe Goubert).
This chasing group bridged over to the remnants of the leading break on the Kanarieberg with 70km remaining, with the main pack containing Sagan and van Avermaet now almost a minute in arrears. This gap had come down to just 35 seconds ahead of the first Kwaremont-Paterberg double-header, which Gilbert took as his cue to zip clear.
It seemed a rather reckless move – perhaps an indication that the 2012 world champion was prepared to burn himself in paving the way to a record fourth Ronde win for teammate Boonen.
But the dynamic changed when the chasing group was split by a crash that brought down Vanmarcke, Rowe and Bodnar on the fast run to the foot of the Paterberg. His front wheel seemingly caught in the grove of the “betonweg” concrete road, Vanmarcke was tramlined – bringing down Rowe in his wake and driving Bodnar into a ditch. If Bodnar recovered, Vanmarcke soon withdrew while Rowe – who had looked sprightly for Sky, eventually finished second to last.
Exploiting the chaos behind, Gilbert increased his lead on the Paterberg before his remaining pursuers were swept up by the pack on the Koppenberg with 45km remaining. Van Baarle countered with Italy’s Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo) before more drama on the Taaienberg.
Renowned as one of Boonen’s favourite climbs and the site of many a Boonen attack over the years, the Taaienberg proved less of a tonic for the 36-year-old after a series of mechanicals left him stranded and frustrated on the side of the road – much reminiscent of his Arenberg nightmare in the 2011 Paris-Roubaix.
Sensing the pendulum swaying, Sagan launched an attack. Sticking to him like glue, van Avermaet had it covered. The two favourites were joined by Naesen, Trentin and Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), with the likes of Terpstra and Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) in pursuit.
The race was wonderfully poised when Gilbert crested the summit of the Kruisberg with a one-minute gap over his pursuers. With 10km to tackle ahead of the final two climbs it was make-or-break for the lone leader. But Gilbert limited his losses to his pursuers and started the Kwaremont with a gap of 57 seconds.
Then fate – or Lady Luck, in Gilbert’s case – had her say. Eager to find the smooth road, Sagan – like Icarus flying too close to the sun – had his wings burnt. His bike snapped in two and he was left in a heap on the cobbles alongside the impressive Naesen and van Avermaet.
Fresh from winning E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, van Avermaet kept his cool and remounted. But it was all over for both Sagan and Naesen, who would finish the race 27th and 23rd respectively.
Van Avermaet, van Baarle and Terpstra cut the gap to 50 seconds going over the final climb, the Paterberg. But with Terpstra not willing to help chase down his teammate, and the relatively inexperienced van Baarle very much in unchartered territory, the bloodied van Avermaet cut a frustrated figure in the flat run into Oudenaarde.
Riding his 36th monument and still without a win, van Avermaet was forced to settle for second best once again – but not before Gilbert had celebrated in some style by walking over the line with his bike raised. It was Gilbert’s first win in a monument since the 2011 Liege-Bastogne-Liege and his biggest scalp since his world championships win in 2012.
Having raised eyebrows when joining Quick-Step Floors on a one-year contract in the off-season, Gilbert has proved his doubters wrong with a scintillating start to the season. His 70th pro victory could well do down as his finest – irrespective of that race-changing crash involving Sagan and van Avermaet.
Read the original article on Eurosport: Philippe Gilbert wins Tour of Flanders with remarkable solo break