Philippe Gilbert of Belgium breaks away from the pack to win the Men’s Elite Road Race at the UCI Road World Championships in Valkenburg, September 23, 2012. (REUTERS/Bas Czerwinski/Pool)

By Julien Pretot

VALKENBURG, Netherlands, Sept 23 (Reuters) – Favorite Philippe Gilbert duly delivered when he perfectly timed his final effort and won the cycling world championships road race on Sunday.

The win salvaged a disappointing season for the Belgian who had struggled all year after finishing as world number one in 2011 having won the Amstel Gold Race, the Fleche Wallonne and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classics.

Gilbert surged ahead on the final climb of the Cauberg, where the Amstel Gold Race usually finishes, and never looked back, holding off his rivals on the closing, flat part.

“It is such a great moment, I had a bit of time to enjoy the final 200 meters,” Gilbert told a news conference.

“I went with 2.2 kms to go. It was very long but also very fast, I was focused on my effort until 200 meters to go.”

Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen finished second ahead of Spaniard Alejandro Valverde at the end of a 267-km ride from Maastricht that ended with a 16.1-km loop going up the Cauberg, a 1,200-metre ascent with a 5.8 percent gradient, 10 times.

Defending champion Mark Cavendish, who had no chance of retaining his title because of the course, pulled out exhausted after some 140 km.

The Manxman ducked a fan’s sign sticking out on to the course on the inside of an uphill corner and escaped with only a sore neck.

Belgium did their best to control several breakaways, including one featuring Vuelta champion Alberto Contador and France’s Thomas Voeckler, two outside bets for the win.

Spain had several riders capable of winning the race but Contador’s attack came too soon and Valverde failed to follow Gilbert’s surge ahead in the Cauberg.

Three-times world champion Oscar Freire, who was hoping for a small group sprint finish, could not sustain the pace either and settled for 10th in possibly the last race of his career.

“In the last lap, we thought it would be a sprint so we wanted to work for Oscar but Gilbert’s attack changed everything,” Valverde told a news conference.

“At the top of the Cauberg I knew that Gilbert would win, his attack was too strong,” said Valverde.

“(Alexander) Kolobnev counter-attacked then Boasson Hagen went behind and nobody wanted to work with the others. We were thinking about the medals.”

Boasson Hagen said there was no way of catching Gilbert, who took a silver medal with BMC in the team time trial last Sunday.

“I was a bit too far behind when he went. I was hoping some other guy would close the gap and it would eventually be a small group sprint finish,” the Norwegian told a news conference.