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Brabantse Pijl, the overlooked Ardennes race

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Photographs: Gerard Brown & Offside/L'Equipe

It was 2011, the year Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert accomplished what only one other man had done – he completed the ‘Ardennes treble’, winning the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the same week.
The Walloon was all-conquering that year – before he had even turned up to the first of the trio he had won Strade Bianche, a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico and placed third in Milan-Sanremo. A ninth place in the Ronde van Vlaanderen only confirmed his form, just weeks before the final Classics of spring.
Only there was another race, a fourth part of the Ardennes challenge. It may be just another race for many, but not Gilbert. The controversial Davide Rebellin is his only equal in the pantheon of Ardennes legends – in 2004, he became the first rider to complete the triple – but only Gilbert has won all four.
Brabantse Pijl (Flèche Brabançonne to Walloons) is the race. It’s often overlooked, taking place in the midweek before Amstel Gold, but it’s a race that Gilbert holds in high regard. He was quick to point this out when we asked about his Ardennes treble in issue 53 of 1. “I actually won four races: there was Flèche Brabançonne too – it’s also important to mention this, I think. So I’d won four races in ten days. I was happy.”
Gilbert went on triumph at Liège-Bastogne-Liège after his win at Brabantse Pijl. pic: Offside/L’Equipe
Earlier today we saw the man from Verviers forgo his chance at glory as his teammate Ben Hermans forged the winning move on the final lap of the race.
It was the last of a flurry of attacks coming after the original break of the day had been caught, and it proved to be the decisive one. Hermans, who hails from Hasselt – less than an hour from the finish – pressed on alone on the penultimate hill of the day, leaving behind IAM Cycling’s David Tanner.
It was a massive effort from the 28 year-old, who still had the final climb in front of him. With the likes of Rebellin (CCC-Sprandi), Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) chasing behind, the run-in was tense.
Hermans prevailed though, condemning Matthews to the second spot on the podium yet again. Gilbert rounded out the podium.
Today marked only the sixth time the race has been run in its current position on the calendar – previously it was part of the build-up to the Ronde van Vlaanderen, until it was swapped with Scheldeprijs.
The duo form part of a group of races that pass many fans by, with Paris-Tours, Milano-Torino and Tro-Bro Lèon the others that spring to mind. All four have a strong history and famed winners but the packed modern cycling calendar means they are now largely overshadowed by larger events.
A varied group of riders, including Freddy Maertens, Edwig van Hooydonck, Michele Bartoli and Óscar Freire won the race before Gilbert took the first of his two victories. Impressive names, but how many have read about their triumphs in this race?
Óscar Freire is a notable ex-winner of the race, pictured here in 2005. pic: Offside/L’Equipe
The race was bought by the Flanders Classics organisation in 2010. Immediately, boss Wouter Vandenhaute moved the finish to Overijse, south-east of Brussels, so that the route would pass his house on the finishing circuits. It’s hard to imagine another race’s owner attempting to transform it into a personal criterium.
So is the race’s low-key status merited? It’s younger than the other Ardennes Classics, with the exception of the Amstel Gold Race, but it’s also one of the more exciting.
As can often be the case with smaller races, it feels like more of an open contest than those that follow, where riders don’t wait until the final climb to make their move.
Another factor that contributes to the action is that it’s not quite as tough as the bigger-name races, in spite of the nineteen climbs traversed on four laps of the final circuit. It’s seen as a build-up race for the majority of the peloton, meaning teams don’t prize it as much as they would Liège-Bastogne-Liège, for example.
Nevertheless, as the dramatic run-in earlier this afternoon showed, it’s more than just a warm-up race. A career-defining moment for Hermans, today we saw that many races deserve better than to be looked at solely in relation to the biggest events on the calendar. As for Gilbert – he won’t be repeating his quadruple this year, but there’s always next time.
Brabantse Pijl isn’t the only underrated race around. Here’s a look at four others which deserve more attention.
Alexander Kristoff’s great sprint form carried him to victory at Scheldeprijs, among other races. pic: Offside/L’Equipe
Formerly taking up the calendar spot that Brabantse Pijl now occupies, it has the unofficial nickname of the Sprinters’ World Championship, giving you some idea about the type of race it is. In recent years Giant-Alpecin’s Marcel Kittel has won three editions in a row, joining Piet Oellibrandt and Mark Cavendish at the top of the all-time winner’s list.
The 103rd edition of the race was run this year, with Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff breaking the absent Kittel’s string of victories. In recent years it has gained as much publicity for the crashes in the final kilometres as it has for the racing.
Tro-Bro Lèon
The ‘Breton Paris-Roubaix’, run on the same day as the Amstel Gold Race. pic: Gerard Brown
Inspired by the cobbled classics, and run by one man since the first edition in 1984, the Tro-Bro Lèon has flown under the radar for its entire life. Run over the gravel farm roads of Brittany, it attracts a similar type of ‘hardman’ rider as the Northern Classics. A quirk of the race is the prize – the highest-placed Breton takes home a piglet.
Giampaolo Caruso of Katusha was the best on Superga in 2014. pic: Offside/L’Equipe
One of the oldest races on the calendar, the semi-Classic has been run intermittently since 1876. Past winners include Fiorenzo Magni, Roger De Vlaeminck, Francesco Moser and, more recently, Alberto Contador. Some may remember it as the race where Marco Pantani suffered an almost career-ending broken leg in 1995.
Traditionally held in the week before Milano-Sanremo, the race was moved to October in 1987. More recently, the finish of the race has shifted to the top of the tough Superga climb – a location sadly famed for the tragic plane crash that wiped out the Torino football team in 1949.
Jelle Wallays made a name for himself at the French ‘Race of the Falling Leaves’. pic: Offside/L’Equipe
Another old race that has fallen by the wayside to some extent, it was first run in 1896 and was originally over 300km long. It’s the one race that Eddy Merckx never won. Rik Van Looy, Sean Kelly and Johan Museeuw have all achieved what the Cannibal couldn’t, while Jacky Durand memorably won from an all-day breakaway in 1998.
In recent years the race has been a battle between the sprinters and breakaway riders, with Topsport-Vlaanderen’s Jelle Wallays beating Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) as the duo held off a rampaging peloton.

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