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After creating the decisive selection, Gilbert easily beat Wellens in a sprint duel to take his second Belgian road race title; Van Avermaet made it two BMC riders on the podium

Photo: Tim De Waele/TDW Sport

BMC RACING TEAM

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GREG VAN AVERMAET

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NATIONAL CHAMPIONSSHIPS

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PHILIPPE GILBERT

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TIM WELLENS

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26.06.2016 @ 18:11 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Philippe Gilbert (BMC) proved that he is back to his best as he turned out to be in a class of his own at the Belgian road race championships. Having made it into a 21-rider break at the start of the race, he created the decisive selection before he beat Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) in a two-rider sprint. Greg Van Avermaet did a great job to protect his teammate in the chase group and finally made it two BMC riders on the podium.

 

In 2011, it almost seemed to be a foregone conclusion when the unstoppable Philippe Gilbert rode to victory at the Belgian Championships as part of one of the greatest seasons in recent cycling history. Despite riding on an almost completely flat course, he simply rode Tom Boonen off his wheel on the only small rise and then soloed to victory.

 

Today Gilbert took his second title but unlike five years ago, the win was taken on an Ardennes-like course that was tailor-made for him. However, a difficult spring season marred by a broken finger sustained in a training altercation made him more of an outsider than a real favourite, with most pointing to his teammate Greg Van Avermaet as the man to beat.

 

However, Gilbert decided to anticipate the situation when both he and Van Avermaet had made their way into a 21-rider group after a fast sand aggressive start to the race. When the group was about to be caught, he attacked on one of the many climbs and as he was joined by Laurens De Plus (Etixx-QuickStep) and Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), all the major teams were represented in front.

 

A very strong Van Avermaet could do no more than protect his teammate in front and after De Plus had been dropped, it was Gilbert and Wellens who sprinted for the win, with the BMC rider coming out on top with apparent ease. Van Avermaet could finally attack in the finale to make it two BMC riders on the podium.

 

 

 

The 2016 edition of the Belgian championships were held on a 15.4km circuit in Les Lacs de l’Eau d’Heure. It would be covered fifteen times for an overall distance of 231km. It was a hilly affair with barely a single metre of flat and several smaller climbs. The main challenge was the 7% climb of Petit-Poggio which came 5km from the finish and then it was a slight rise to the finish.

 

It was a sunny day in Belgium when the riders gathered for the start and they would get it off to a very aggressive opening. Last year the early break made it to the finish and so it was no surprise that there were lots of attacks right from the start. The result of the fast start was a big 21-rider with Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet, Loic Vliegen, Dylan Teuns (BMC), Sean De Bie, Bart De Clercq, Thomas De Gendt, Jelle Wallays, Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Jan Bakelants (Ag2r), Jens Keukeleire (Orica-GreenEDGE), Dries Devenyns (IAM), Wout Van Aert (Crelan), Laurens De Plus, Pieter Serry, Nikolas Maes (Etixx-QuickStep), Thomas Degand (Wanty), Laurent Evrard (3M), Sebastien Delfosse (Wallonie) Floris De Tier and Gijs Van Hoecke (Topsport Vlaanderen). They reached the end of the second lap with an advantage of 42 seconds and at the 50km mark, they had extended their advantage to 1.21.

 

While a sick Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) was forced to abandon, the peloton split in three, with a first group of 26 riders getting clear. At the same time, Iljo Keisse and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Etixx-QuickStep) abandoned under the pouring rain that had started to fall hard. That spelled the end for De Bie who was dropped from the lead group.

 

At the 100km, there were only 70 riders left in the race which was becoming one of attrition. Pieter Vanspeybrouck (Topsport) and Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal) took off in pursuit of the leaders and the latter quickly dropped his companion. De Gendt dropped back to help him rejoin the leaders

 

For the first time, the gap went out to more than 2 minutes and Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) who had been ill before the start, decided to throw in the towel. However, Frederik Backaert (Wanty) hadn’t given up yet and he took off in pursuit of the leaders. Stijn Devolder (Trek) joined him but the pair had a gap of 2.45 to close. They were quickly swallowed up and instead Julien Vermote (Etixx-QuickStep) set off inside the final 90km.

 

Vermote stayed away for most of a lap but as they approached the finish line again, he was brought back on the finishing straight as Trek were now chasing hard. However, the gap was still 2.20 and not really coming down.

 

As soon as they started the next lap, De Gendt sneaked away and quickly got an advantage of around 20 seconds. Meanwhile, Wanty gathered 3 riders on the front of the peloton as they only had Degand ahead, with Backaert and Dimitri Claeys taking some big turns on the front.

 

De Gendt’s move forced BMC on the defensive as Teuns and Vliegen now had to work hard to keep Van Avermaet and Gilbert in contention. Especially, Teuns took some massive turns to keep the gap at around 20 seconds when they crossed the line with four laps to go. The peloton which had been whittled down to around 20 riders crossed the line 1.50 behind the lone leader and it was Gaetan Bille who led the Wanty train across the line.

 

While Wanty continued to approach from behind, Vliegen was dropped from the chase group as he paid the prize for his hard work. He was soon passed by the peloton where Bille and Claeys reduced the gap to less than one minute as they entered the final 50km.

 

Teuns ended his work and after Etixx-QuickStep had briefly contributed to the pace-setting, the cooperation in the chase group was gone. Hence, it was no surprise that the attacking started and after a few unsuccessful moves, it was Gilbert who launched a big acceleration. Only De Plus and Wellens could follow and they quickly passed the fading De Gendt.

 

No one worked together in the chase group and after a few attacks, Bakelants got clear with Wallays. They caught De Gendt before Van Avermaet and Serry and later also Keukeleire joined from behind. However, the group soon came back together just after they had started the third last lap.

 

The small peloton caught the chasers and so it was a front trio chased by a 30-rider peloton with 40km to go. At this point, the gap was 35 seconds and it was Oliver Naesen (IAM) working in the peloton for Devenyns.

 

Naesen didn’t get much help and so the gap quickly went out to more than a minute before Maarten Wynants took over for LottoNL-Jumbo. As he swung off, there was no one to take over and so Naesen launched a solo attack.

 

A few more attacks meant that Naesen was brought back and again the group came to a standstill as all the big teams had a rider in the front trio. Again the IAM rider started to ride on the front but he didn’t get any help.

 

The front trio started the penultimate lap with an advantage of 1.15 and they continued to slowly increase the gap. Naesen kept riding on the front but whenever he swung off, a host of Lotto Soudal riders slowed the group down.

 

With 25km to go, Bakelants attacked on a small climb but Van Avermaet marked him closely. This allowed first Devolder and later also Serry, Van Aert and Vermote to make it back. Finally, Roelandts and Laurens De Vreese (Astana) also got back while the rest of the group splintered to pieces.

 

As they hit the next climb, Wellens attacked hard in the front group and De Plus was distanced immediately. Further back Bakelants hit out hard again and this time only Van Avermaet and Serry could follow. Again the pace went down though and so Roelandts and later Vermote and Van Aert could make it back too. Finally, Devolder and De Vreese also made the junction.

 

With De Plus no longer in the front group, Serry and Vermote were assisting in the chase but the gap was still 1.15 as they entered the final 20km. The group briefly tried to work together but they didn’t get any closer as they approached the penultimate passage of the line.

 

Gilbert and Wellens started the final lap with an advantage of 1.20 before Bakelants and Vermote attacked on the finishing straight. They passed the fading De Plus before Van Avermaet sprinted past them as they crossed the line. However, Serry and Bakelants made it back and so the group slowed down again, allowing Van Aert, De Vreese, Delfosse, Vermote and Roelandts to get back too.

 

Wellens and Gilbert entered the final 10km with an advantage of 1.30 and it was time for Wellens to try to get rid of his faster companion. He first tried to set a fast pace on a small climb with 8km to go and when Gilbert came through for a turn, he made an attack. However, the BMC rider didn’t give him an inch. Meanwhile, Bakelants again went hard in the chase group, distancing De Vreese, Van Aert and Vermote.

 

Wellens led the front duo onto the Petit-Poggio before Gilbert came through for a turn. When the top was in sight, Wellens made his expected attack but Gilbert reacted immediately and went straight to the front as they went over the top.

 

While Gilbert and Wellens again started to cooperate, Van Aert and Vermote rejoined the chasers but as they were still 1.20 behind with 3km to go, it was clear that the race had been reduced to a duel. Further back, the chasers kept attacking each other and it was Serry and Roelandts who got clear before Van Avermaet bridged across solo.

 

Wellens came through for a turn with 1500m to go but then the game of cat and mouse started as Gilbert refused to take over. The Lotto Soudal rider led under the flamme rouge before Gilbert came through. The pair almost came to a standstill until Gilbert launched his sprint from the front with less than 300m to go. Wellens did not even try to respond and so the BMC rider had plenty of time to celebrate his second national road race title. Van Avermaet made a late attack to take third, with Roelandts and Bakelants rounding out the top 5.

 

Gilbert will get his first chance to wear his new jersey at the Tour de Pologne as he will skip the Tour de France to focus on the one-day races in the autumn.

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