The Belgian held off the chasers after attacking out of the break and netted Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s 59th win of the season.
Philippe Gilbert showed ten fingers as he crossed the line in Bilbao – which hosted a stage finish for the 43rd time in the history of the race – one for each of the ten Grand Tour stage wins he had captured in the past decade. One of the most accomplished riders in history, the 37-year-old rode flawlessly on Thursday, when a break formed after more than 100 kilometers from the start, benefitted from Tim Declercq’s selfless and amazing work, and dispatched the other riders in the move on the final climb, before flying down the descent and into the biggest city of the Basque Country, where he celebrated the 76th success of his career.
Gilbert was part of the 19-man breakaway that got away after a hectic first two hours and in the blink of an eye they opened a five-minute gap over the bunch. The former world champion had teammate Tim Declercq for company, and “El Tractor” turned out to be instrumental in the final outcome, as he permanently chased down the attackers from the group and made sure it was all together at the start of the last climb, the leg-sapping Alto de Arraiz (2.2km, 12.2%), where the fans came in huge numbers and created an electric atmosphere.
Philippe led up the ascent, forcing a selection and reducing the group to just three men. Once they took on the double-digit gradients of Arraiz, the multiple Monument winner made his move, dropping the two Spaniards and opening a hefty gap by the time he hit the top and started the fast descent. Despite losing a few seconds here and there, Gilbert looked at all times in control as he went under the flamme rouge and onto the finishing straight, where he finally sat up and celebrated his ninth victory in the Deceuninck – Quick-Step jersey, which came with the combativity prize as bonus.
“There was a lot of headwind in the first part of the stage, but that didn’t stop us, and we attacked and joined many moves, but the bunch reacted each time. It was pretty chaotic, but we kept attacking and at one point, I went full gas on a descent. Tim came across, some other guys joined us, and together we opened a small gap which we kept increasing. Tim was so important, he did a brilliant job, especially before the last ascent, where he closed the gap on the two leaders, and I’m grateful to him for his help. From there, all I had to do was race smart and stick to my plan, which I did and now I’m satisfied it all paid off”, said the fourth Belgian rider in history to win a La Vuelta stage in at least four different years.
Philippe, who signed off Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s 93rd Grand Tour stage victory, had praise not only for his teammate, but also for the fantastic supporters who made his day even more memorable: “On the last climb, the atmosphere was crazy! It was like in the classics, with all the flags and everything, and the fans gave me a lot of motivation. I am happy to score a tenth Grand Tour stage win – a nice number – and I’m happy that it came in the beautiful Basque Country, which in my opinion is very similar to Flanders, as they have a profound love for cycling also here.”
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