I don’t know where to start, but Philippe Gilbert is surely the most impressive rider of the spring. Cancellara was strong but couldn’t deliver a win; Nuyens and Goss were clever. But for raw power uphill, Gilbert is looking invincible. I wasn’t sure if he could win the Flèche Wallonne but he looked fresh as the bunch tackled the penultimate climb, with riders like Alberto Contador grimacing.
There were doubts in the Flemish classics earlier. He took the Montepaschi Strade Bianche but then seemed a little bit off the pace although that’s relative given he was on the attack over the Bosberg. Some were asking if he was going to miss out on his spring classics campaign.
But as a boy he grew up on the slopes of La Redoute, his childhood home sits on the route of Liège–Bastogne–Liège and it’s Sunday’s race that’s been his goal all along. He now looks irresistible, able to cope with a sprint finish as easily as the vicious climb of the Mur de Huy. In other words, he’s got a box of tricks able to foil almost anyone.
How to beat him?
As good as he is, this is sport and anything can happen. One of the attractions of cycling is that it is tactical and dynamic, the strongest rider doesn’t always win. Plus there’s always the chance he has an off day this Sunday. But if the other teams want to reduce his chances, here are some thoughts:
- Isolation: Gilbert has a strong team with some great riders, for example Jelle Vanendert was a surprising sixth place in the Flèche Wallonne. But non are fuoriclasse. So if the other teams can blow the race apart, it is possible to isolate Gilbert in the final. Leopard for example could use the Schleck Brothers and Jacob Fuglsang to shred things and force a selection but the risk is the work isolates Gilbert to the advantage of another rider or team. Katusha are another team with several cards to play.
- Pride: with some a powerful demonstration, it’s possible Gilbert believes in himself too much. Just as Cancellara tried a bold long range move in Flanders, it’s possible Gilbert plays the artist too.
- …err, that’s it
It’s hard to think of more ways to get rid of him. He can climb, he can sprint and he’s in top form with a dedicated team. It’ll still be great to watch Sunday’s race to see if he can do it. It is not easy, very few riders have scored the triple of the Amstel, Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège all in the same year. Davide Rebellin managed it in 2004. Just winning the Amstel-Flèche double, plus on top of the Brabantse Pijl is enormous and worthy of all superlatives. To take Liège would be something else.
Last year Cycle Sport Magazine asked me to join a panel of contributors to name the most memorable performance of the year. I picked Gilbert’s ride in the Giro di Lombardia, saying “Not having seen Merckx race, there was a glimpse of cannibalism about the way Philippe Gilbert dispatched his rivals one by one in the Tour of Lombardy” and this seems true in 2011 again.