“I will remember every second” – Philippe Gilbert, Ronde van Vlaanderen 2017 winner.
The 101st edition of the Tour of Flanders, Ronde van Vlaanderen, De Ronde, or simply “Vlaanderens Mooiste” (Flanders’ Finest) truly produced one of the finest cycling races this season.
Flanders was Etixx’s race to lose, with their three-prong style attack providing them with 2 of the podium places at the end of the day, with only Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) separating them. Philippe Gilbert stood atop the podium, his impressive solo ride from 55km from the ascent of the Kwaremont, while the looming figures including Sagan (BORA) and Van Avermaet chased him down. A crash at 17km to go impeded any chance they had of catching him, and were only seen in the distance as Gilbert walked over the line, bike in the air, smile on his face. But where were the other favourites? How could one rider be left on his own for 55km during De Ronde?
“It all started on the Muur. I was riding on Tom Boonen’s wheel and it went on from there.” – Philippe Gilbert.
After 5 long years, the Muur returned. Not in its usual, towards the end of race position, when riders are tested once again, line almost in sight, as they brave the [Flemish] “wall”, but 100km from the finish. While Cancellara attacked him on the climb in 2010 to take the win, the 2017 edition saw Boonen upping the tempo as he led the peloton over the top while teammates Gilbert and Trentin followed. A large majority of the peloton were caught out by this attack, but with the Etixx men were riders the likes of Vanmarcke (Cannondale), Rowe, Moscon (Sky) and Kristoff (Katusha). However, with 50km to the finish, Vanmarcke appeared to ride over a seam in the concrete on the road, crashing and taking down Rowe with him.
Philippe Gilbert launched his winning attack with 55km to go, on the ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, leaving the rest of the chasers far behind, with Sagan and Van Avermaet catching up to his teammate Boonen. What happened to Boonen? His chain slipped at the bottom of the Taaienberg climb, and his second chain on his second bike slipped moments after. When Boonen managed to gain Terpstra’s bike, this was too small, and his Flanders chances were over.
“At the end of the cobbles [Paterberg], I looked back and saw that I had a big gap. I called back to the team car, and they just said to keep going. I was worried because it was still a long way to go.” – Philippe Gilbert.
The last 10km of De Ronde were quite possibly some of the longest in Philippe Gilbert’s life. The trio of Sagan, the World Champion, and Van Avermaet, 2017 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Gent–Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke winner, as well as Naesen, 3rd placed in E3 Harelbeke the same year, were closing in behind him. It was stated that as long as Gilbert had a minute on the trio by the time they hit the last climb of Kwaremont with 17km to go, Gilbert would be very likely to win. He had exactly a minute, but disaster struck for the chasers. Sagan chose to ride to the side of the road with Van Avermaet and Naesen in tow, but he has since stated it was the jacket on the side of the barrier that brought him down. The three crashed while Cannondale’s Dylan van Baarle rode past on the other side, eventually finishing in 4th.
The 101st edition of the Tour of Flanders had perhaps, one of the most dramatic, eyes-glued-to-the-TV wins produced. While it can be easy to dwell on the “what ifs?”, (what if Vanmarcke attacked with Gilbert on the Kwaremont? What if Vanmarcke didn’t crash, not taking out himself and Rowe? What if Van Avermaet was further up the road when Boonen lit up the race on the Muur? What if Sagan, Van Avermaet and Naesen didn’t crash?), it is impossible to take this well-deserved win from Philippe Gilbert. After all, who else would brave an attack in De Ronde with 55km to go? With no mechanical, no crash and no bad weather impeding him, the 101st Tour of Flanders is Gilbert’s.