A MAN FOR ALL RACES
Only three men in the history of cycling have won all five monuments, but Gilbert wants to be the fourth. Procycling assesses his chances
Philippe Gilbert is the best Classics rider in the world. Success in Flanders and the retirement of Fabian Cancellara mean the Walloon is the only active pro to hold three different monuments - two Lombardias and one Liège-BastogneLiège. And of course, the Ronde. Four riders hold two. At the climbers’ end of the spectrum, Dan Martin and Simon Gerrans have a pair and at the sprinters’ end, so do Alexander Kristoff and John Degenkolb. Gilbert sits as neatly as is possible in the middle. Quantitatively, Gilbert also co-leads the table of active monument winners with four in total, the same as Alejandro Valverde, whose wins have all come in Liège.
Some riders find what they’re good at and win the same thing over and over. Now he’s found his calling, Chris Froome shows little sign of deviating from his key mission to France in July. Anything on the pathway there is fair game as well. Valverde too. The Spaniard was going to ride Flanders in 2016, but bottled it in favour of the Ardennes. He now has five Flèche titles to his name as well as the four in Liège. Gilbert is a collector of a different sort. He’s intent on broadening his palmarès, not deepening it. He wants to win all the Classics. Top of his list: the big ones. San Remo and Roubaix. In 2015, Philippe Gilbert explained to
Procycling how he would go about winning Roubaix. It boiled down to watching the last dozen or so editions of the race on YouTube and brushing up on his technique with some training sessions on the pavé.
When he announced his Quick-Step contract had been extended by two more years, he underlined that desire. It’s a media-friendly line: ambitious, neat and redolent with history. But how possible is it that Gilbert becomes the first rider since Roger De Vlaeminck in 1974 and only the fourth rider to complete the set?
Here are three reasons why it’s possible. First, he’s in the right place. BMC pigeonholed him as a hilly Classics man. How much of that was down to reducing friction between him and Greg Van Avermaet is a moot point. No, QuickStep is the team to do it on and he’s staying put for the next two years. The team has been so successful in the Classics that one-day savoir-faire is now a latent quality. The team’s CEO, Patrick Lefevere, has been in the car - or within a phone call of the lead sports director -
for 12 wins at Paris-Roubaix. A light smudge is the leadership issue. The team has riders who look better suited to the divergent qualities of Gilbert’s remaining targets. Milan-San Remo? Fernando Gaviria. Paris-Roubaix? Niki Terpstra. But then again, the split option has its advantages, which is the second reason in favour. Which rider do rivals watch? Gilbert has form turning this into a virtue. When he bolted up the Cauberg in the big ring in the 2012 worlds there were four Belgians in the first 10.
Third, the monuments habitually suit older riders. Especially Paris-Roubaix. Last year, Mat Hayman won the race nine days short of his 38th birthday, and he was only the thirdoldest rider to win. Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle won the race twice over the age of 37. It’s worth remembering, however, that they had years of experience on the course - something Hayman said was crucial. Gilbert has started just one edition, in 2007. He finished 52nd. Were he to win next year, Gilbert, at 35, would be the eighth oldest winner. Milan-San Remo is a slightly younger man’s game but Andrei Tchmil set the current ceiling in 1999 when he won it a couple of months past his 36th birthday. He preempted the sprinters, which is just the sort of move at which Gilbert excels.
The list of reasons why Gilbert is up against it seems more compelling. The previous riders to take all three, Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck, completed the set in four, six and five years. Gilbert will be in his 16th pro year when his next opportunities at San Remo and Roubaix swing around.
Looking at how the current roster of five multiple winners’ successes are grouped is interesting - and forbidding to Gilbert’s hopes. Three of the five - Kristoff, Degenkolb and Gerrans - have won San Remo, suggesting that could be the easiest for the Walloon to pick off. ‘Lottery’ isn’t quite the right word to describe La Primavera, but the race is elusive to those who make it a target. He need only ask Tom Boonen, Thor Hushovd and Peter Sagan as recent favourites for whom it has proved out of reach. Gilbert’s best chance may have passed already. In 2011, he was chased down in San Remo by Filippo Pozzato, the ‘Shadow’, as Boonen nicknamed him for neutralising tactics in the 2009 season, and came third.
Paris-Roubaix is more singular still. Of the active winners of more than one monument, only John Degenkolb has combined the Hell of the North with another of the big five - San Remo.
Very clearly, every monument is hard to win. Being the strongest helps. Gilbert won both his editions of Lombardy à la pédale. In Liège in 2011 he could probably have won any which way, but easily beat the Schleck brothers in a sprint. Flanders was more tactical, more nuanced - and it was all the richer for that. But Roubaix is
the ultimate strong man’s proposition. And the problem is it’s a different kind of strong to Gilbert: it’s for heavier, taller men.
Maybe the key to both is in the sprint. Gilbert insists that he’s fast. Not like Boonen was, but handy enough. Back in the day he was unbeatable if he arrived in a final and he was the heaviest there, and he won the bunch sprint into Cham on the first road stage of the Tour de Suisse this year, beating luminaries such as Peter Sagan and Michael Matthews. He’s not done that in a while. The need for a fast sprint in San Remo is obvious. Since the Cipressa was introduced in 1982, 16 have come down to bunch or group sprints. In Roubaix too, solo wins are currently regressing: four of the last five editions have been contested by between two and six riders.
Beneath the monuments, Gilbert’s palmarès is looking studiously complete. From Het Volk through to Paris-Tours, there are few gaps. Brabantse Pijl Amstel, Flèche, Clásica San Sebastián, and the big modern races of Strade Bianche and GP de Québec are all accounted for. Flanders should hearten him for what gaps remain on the cobbles. He was second in Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3-Harelbeke this year and they’re both missing. More important than both is Gent-Wevelgem, in which he made the front group in 2010 but lost the sprint to Bernhard Eisel. Maybe that’s the place to start. And what thereafter? That would surely be enough to be going on with.
Gilbert chases on the Poggio in the 2011 Milan-San Remo. Result: 3rd
Gilbert takes victory in the World champs in Valkenburg, 2012