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

Procycling - - Contents - Writer Sam Dan­sie Pho­tog­ra­phy Kristof Ra­mon, Getty Images, Yuzuru Su­nada

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

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