The multiple Monument winner came inside the top 10 at the end of Friday’s tough stage.
The longest stage of the Tour de la Provence travelled between Istres and La Ciotat over a 196km-long course peppered with several climbs, a route that inspired eight men to slip clear from the bunch and open a four-minute gap that was kept under control by the overall leader’s team.
With 50 kilometers to go, when the front group got whittled down to a handful of riders and their advantage reduced to around three minutes, Philippe Gilbert attacked on a short descent and put 20 seconds between him and the main group, where he returned after a few minutes. Almost immediately, the tempo went up and the peloton scratched another minute off the leaders’ buffer.
Going into the leg-sapping Les Crêtes, a 2.8km climb averaging 9.8%, riders began jostling for position in the pack, which was blown to pieces as soon as it hit the steep gradients of the climb that topped with 13 kilometers left. Attacks started flying in the peloton and a select ten-man group formed before the summit.
Philippe Gilbert fought admirably on the tricky descent that followed, chasing by himself the nine men at the front and limiting the losses to the leaders. The 36-year-old Belgian, who is making his first appearance of the season at the French race, finished less than 20 seconds behind winner Eduard Prades (Movistar), in tenth place, a result that helped him make an important jump in the general classification.
“It was a very nice stage, with beautiful weather, no wind and some proper racing. The pace was high today and a couple of teams dropped the hammer on that last climb, doing some damage in the peloton. Phil was close behind and put in a strong ride, which was made impressive by the fact that we are so early in the season. Provence is shaping up to be an intriguing race and we can’t wait to see what the next two stages will bring”, sports director Brian Holm explained in La Ciotat.
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