Liege: Belgium`s love of cycling`s tough one-day classics came to a dramatic crescendo when Philippe Gilbert finally landed a "dream" victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
A perfectly-executed display of power, endurance and tactical nous allowed Gilbert to beat Frank and Andy Schleck at the end of the 255.5km epic to claim his maiden triumph in the sport`s oldest one-day classic, first raced in 1892.
As a result, he secured a rare hat-trick of wins in the `Ardennes Classics`, achieved only once when Italian Davide Rebellin also won the Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne in the week before Liege.
French-speaking Gilbert went one better, having won the Fleche Brabanconne semi-classic two weeks ago to become the first consecutive winner of all four races.
After becoming Belgium`s first winner since the late Franck Vandenbroucke in 1999, Gilbert`s Liege feat was hailed by two-time champion Alexandre Vinokourov.
"Once again he`s shown he is one of the best classics riders in the world. He`s been on form since (his third place at) Milan-San-Remo," said the Kazakh.
"And he`s only 28. I think he can keep going like this for a few years yet."
Some riders take years to win even one of cycling`s five one-day `monuments`.
So far, Gilbert has won two -- the Tour of Lombardy (2009, 2010) and Liege-Bastogne-Liege -- and has twice finished third at Milan-SanRemo (2008, 2011), and at the Tour of Flanders (2009, 2010).
The only major classic in which he currently has no ambitions is Paris-Roubaix, the gruelling cobbled race in which crashes and injuries number in the dozens.
"I won`t risk it, at least not yet. The day I feel like my career`s on the wane then I`ll be ready -- even though it`s a race you need experience to win," said Gilbert.
The only riders to have won all five monuments are Belgian legends Eddy Merckx, who won Liege five times, and Roger De Vlaeminck, a record four-time winner of Paris-Roubaix.
But while the voracious Merckx was successful on all terrains, bagging over 500 career wins including five Tour de France and Giro d`Italia titles, Gilbert knows his limits.
"I would love to wear the Tour de France yellow jersey one day," he added, admitting he is never likely to challenge for victory in the Tour. There`s also the lure of the rainbow jersey, also won by Merckx.
Gilbert was one of the favourites, and a main protagonist in the closing stages of last year`s world championship road race, won by Norwegian Thor Hushovd, and believes he`ll get his chance again soon.
"A world championship title really motivates me and the race courses in 2012 and 2013 should suit me well," he added.
Gilbert`s success capped a brilliant season for the Belgian peloton which, barring Australian Matt Goss`s Milan-SanRemo triumph won all of the spring classics.
The class of his performance at Liege was perhaps best summed up by the Schlecks` sporting director at Leopard-Trek, Kim Andersen.
"We wanted two against one (in the finale)," he said.
"We knew it would be difficult to get away without Gilbert. He was just stronger. Even two against one, he was stronger."