Perhaps the only thing louder than the creaking in Erik Zabel’s knees at the conclusion of today’s Paris-Tours was the whinging of FdJ’s Philippe Gilbert, recent winner of the season-long Coupe de France competition at Paris-Bourges. Gilbert had slipped away with Disco’s Stijn Devolder late in the race, and the duo of youngsters had a seemingly insurmountable 25 seconds as they came onto the finishing straightaway with 2.4k to go. Then, for some reason, they started yapping. Devolder refused to come through, Gilbert apparently tossed out one of these, and the next thing you know, the venerable old German, who never takes anything for granted (except for this one time…) took victory in an ugly sprint as the 50-man peloton surged past the young Belgians.
Zabel’s victory, his third in total at this race, and second in three years, making him still the only sprinter to win “The Sprinters’ Classic” this milennium, is perhaps even more remarkable because it comes over two riders a decade (or more) younger than he: Liberty Seguros’ Allan Davis (whooops, I mean Allan Davis) and Lampre’s Daniele Bennati (jeez, how’d that get there – Daniele Bennati). Devolder (26) and Gilbert (23) aren’t exactly wisened old vets, either, and some commentators might blame their relative lack of experience for the duo’s defeat. But it’s pretty clear to me that Devolder, though by no means a strijkijzer, probably wouldn’t have a shot against the very quick Gilbert, whose preferred MO is get into the late selection and then win the sprint. Forcing the Wallonian (Gilbert literally lives on the L-B-L race course) to lead out was probably the only shot Devolder, a Flandrian, had at victory. But it didn’t work out, and so a few colorful Belgian phrases were exchanged, with la bras d’honneur shoved in there for good measure. But I feel like, for all the hostility, it could have been a lot worse.