It was a move every bit as incisive and telegraphed as the one in the same place that had won Marianne Vos of the Netherlands the women's title on Saturday afternoon, and Gilbert's opponents were unable to find an answer.
After a near-perfect 2011, when he won five one-day Classics and briefly led the Tour de France, the 30-year-old has had a frustrating season, but he finally came to form in recent weeks at the Tour of Spain. He followed the Italian Vincenzo Nibali, third-placed finisher in the Tour de France, when he attacked at the foot of the short, brutal ascent; he bided his time until Nibali weakened fractionally and then made his effort. Behind, there was a few seconds' hesitation among his closest opponents, led by Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway and Alejandro Valverde of Spain, and that was enough.
As expected, Mark Cavendish did not defend his title; on a circuit that did not suit him, that would have been simply too fantastic a proposition even at the end of a dream season when Great Britain have landed the Tour de France and a host of Olympic medals. But the British team turned up with an eye on the future and performed above expectations, with the Tour of Britain winner Jonathan Tiernan-Locke finishing 19th, in the middle of the group sprinting for fourth place, five seconds behind Gilbert.
For a rider who is completely untested at this level of competition and who was racing the longest race of his life – 261km – it was a debut that promises much for the future. Still more promising perhaps, was confirmation that the cohesive Great Britain performance that won Cavendish the title in 2011 was not a fluke. The experienced Steve Cummings infiltrated a late counter-attack, while Tiernan-Locke showed his climbing ability to hold on to Alberto Contador when the Spaniard made his move with five laps to go, as the pair bridged to the leaders.
When the race entered its key phase with two laps remaining, five Britons were still in the mix in a lead group of about 60, with three young riders – Ian Stannard, Ben Swift and another world championship debutant, the 22-year-old Luke Rowe, alongside Cummings and Tiernan-Locke. Rowe and Swift fell back just before the bell, leaving Stannard to guide Tiernan-Locke towards the finish. As a team performance it was seamless.
Cavendish's defence of the rainbow jersey had come to an end with eight and a half laps of the Valkenburg circuit remaining, when the Manxman slipped off the back of the main group on the Bemelerberg. Cavendish had said before the race that he felt he would not be able to retain the world title, and he devoted himself to riding on the front of the bunch, where he sat for most of the first 120km.
The Great Britain coach, Rod Ellingworth, had said beforehand that Cavendish would adopt a team role, and the world champion explained afterwards: "I'm satisfied, that's the way we've always been in every team I'm in. There is no point in sitting in the race, you've got to take the race on to try and win." Reports again surfaced during the world championship week linking the world's top sprinter with a move to the Belgian team Omega Pharma-Quickstep, but Cavendish has yet to comment on this.
Afterwards the Great Britain performance director, Dave Brailsford, described the team's performance as "brilliant; the older guys who've shown in the Grand Tours [Cavendish, the Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and the Tour runner-up Chris Froome] took it on early, then the young guns did a great job." Brailsford will oversee Tiernan-Locke's progress when the rider joins Team Sky next season: "Hats off to him, this is not the company he has ridden with all season. It bodes well for the future."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © martin_thomas