On Philippe Gilbert

Monday, 25 April 2011

Gilbert Liege

I’ve rarely seen a race like Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Philippe Gilbert started as the race favourite… and Belgium’s favourite star too. Warm weather brought big crowds to the roadside but they’d come to see their son shine.

When the Schleck brothers attacked the move looked useful but only Gilbert went, the others seemed unable to follow. Given nobody else would let Gilbert get a gap but all the same, the move didn’t look devastatingly powerful on TV.

Minutes after crossing the line Gilbert was generous towards the Schlecks, saying they weren’t riding to make him lose, something many other riders might have tried. By this he meant they were taking their turn to ride, the gap over the bunch was never that big and the Schlecks could have played poker but didn’t.

Generosity
It’s thoughts like this that are making “Phil” increasingly popular in Belgium. In a land where cyclists are big name sportsmen, Gilbert is going beyond the sports pages. Of course others have been there too, notably Tom Boonen with stories of cocaine and, at the time, his rather young girlfriend.

But this time Gilbert’s proving a different case. His parents worked in a nearby munitions factory, a legacy of the region’s manufacturing past. Once upon a time the region was booming thanks to coal and steel. Today there’s a lot of rust even if industry remains. Gilbert didn’t want the factory life and told teachers he wanted to work outdoors, perhaps a manifestation of the boyhood dream to turn pro. He ended up heading towards a horticultural diploma but he swapped the greenhouse for the open road.

Gilbert FDJ

The early years

He turned pro with FDJ. A talented rider from the start, leaving Belgium had two benefits. First, a lot less pressure. Second, he explained FDJ had put doping behind it, something other teams had, or indeed have, yet to do.

What next?
I’m savouring this, it’ll be difficult to do better” he said after crossing the finish line. But even achieving half of what he’s done this spring would be plenty for the future. This is without the prospect of a yellow jersey in July, possible given the uphill finish on the opening stage. The rainbow jersey is within his grasp too, and who’d bet against him taking the Giro di Lombardia again? Plus there are many other chances, he often tries opportunist wins here and there.

There’s little point in trying to top this, his riding is powerful and entertaining, if he enters races as the favourite to win, the manner is convincing and powerful, he does not play the odds.

The Vuelta?
Longer term I wonder if he’d be tempted by a stage race win. With two stage race wins in the Vuelta last year, could he be tempted to go for the overall? If the Tour and Giro are probably out of the question, perhaps the Vuelta? Certainly French TV commentator Laurent Jalabert mentioned this, the Frenchman himself went from winner in Liège all the way to Madrid. Personally this could be a challenge too far but it’s a sign that nobody yet knows where he’ll meet his match.

There’s also talk of a new contract, perhaps a new team. He can name his price and already several teams are being linked. Astana in particular but his growing popularity in Belgium means no home team would want to miss out.

grolby April 25, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Turning pro with FDJ probably made a big difference, as you say. I don’t know if Gilbert could have exploded onto the Classics scene like Boonen did, but that kind of pressure seems to burn some riders out – Boonen is only 30, and some are already asking (as at Pave) if he is past his best years. Gilbert has had a steady progression and appears to have his best years still ahead of him. A scary thought! In the best possible way, of course.

Starr April 25, 2011 at 5:06 pm

I predict next spring, his entire focus will be directed at MSR and Flanders.

Liege might be his “hometown” Classic, but winning each monument at least once would be bigger than winning Liege/Lombardy a few times. At least it sounds like that’s his thinking.

Not sure when he’ll attempt Roubaix, but it does not make sense to wait too long, as that is definitely a race of experience and some luck.

Also, nobody can keep up this pace for more than a few straight years, so hopefully he takes advantage of “his” time and goes Cannibal on the rest of them.

Tim April 25, 2011 at 6:09 pm

The most interesting issue without a doubt is Gilbert vs. the Grand Tours. He is allegedly ‘clean’, and there’s not many riders I would bet my money on if asked to do so. Gilbert has shown us to be be able to win the most difficult and hilliest one-day races, and within each one day race he has an astonishingly quick recovery after he has fired his gun on a climb. So the question is: how is his recovery over a longer period, given his clean behaviour sheet? This is where I have my doubts.
(I assume that his time trialling skills can be mastered given his large firepower, just like his ability to master longer climbs will improve, just because of his maturity)

Jarvis April 25, 2011 at 6:53 pm

The guy is a legend. It seems that mentally he is far stronger than many, if not all, of his rivals. It’s this strength that would probably would have meant he would have probably made it in a Belgian team, but it also meant that he knew it would be easier for him at FDJ.

Seems like the only reason he agreed to the Tour this year is that it doesn’t sound like he’s aiming for the Worlds this year. I doubt he’ll pass a chance for a Lombardy triple, but I reckon July he’ll want a stage & a yellow jersey. Who knows, perhaps he fancies a crack at the green jersey in it’s new format.

Ad for the future. Can’t see him leaving Belgium, as long as there is a suitable team. He’s been working on getting a unified team & seems happy with it. If Omega Pharma Lotto does split, it will be interesting to see if his popularity can bring in a big sponsor

Velonista April 25, 2011 at 7:18 pm

@Starr: Yes. I think the five Monuments are very definitely the first goal. I expect he’ll target MSR and/or RVV for next year, and ride Paris-Roubaix.

@Jarvis: Yes, too. Is there a mentally tougher rider out there at the moment? As much as I admire Cancellara, his sitting up at Paris-Roubaix would have been out of character for Gilbert, who would have looked for yet another gear. Green jersey isn’t out of reach, either, I would think.

Souleur April 25, 2011 at 9:29 pm

I agree that Gilbert will be looking hard at Flanders in ’12.

This year, its a tough call. His team has always been rather sputtering when it comes to the grand tours, but if they align themselves behind Gilbert for opportunistic wins, a stage or 2 in the Tour is not out of the question.

Worlds has his name written all over it IMHO

grolby April 25, 2011 at 9:45 pm

@Velonista – I agree totally – I argued after PR that Cancellara let the others riding against him to get to him; in a bit of petulance, he sat up and discarded the opportunity to win. Despite the praise that is (rightfully) heaped on Cancellara for his class, he chose in that moment to do exactly what he called out his opponents for doing: he rode to not lose, rather than to win. It is in this way that Gilbert stands out – he rides to win. I suspect that, in the same situation, Gilbert would say, “Oh yeah? Well I’m a BAMF, and I’m going to win anyway, or crush you trying.” Gilbert is an inspiring rider, not just because of his obvious talent, but his mental strength and utter fearlessness.

Colnago Con Brio April 25, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Superb write up, really enjoyed reading it. About reading the above, an Italian cyclist said to me many years ago…..cycling and brains don’t always go together! :-)

Larry T. April 25, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Interesting race, I found the Eurosport broadcast on the ‘net. Started out showing RAI3’s Italian coverage with Pancani and Cassani but by the time I had the cappuccino made they’d switched over to British with Sean Kelly. I was telling the wife, “Two Schlecks against Gilbert, how can they blow this? Just watch them demonstrate how to lose.” And they proved me right!
No thanks here to Universal Sports! Check out this link http://www.universalsports.com/cycling/viewers-guide/index.html
and comment on how misleading YOU think this is! I can not understand why they have all these events listed with “coming soon” next to them when all you get for $35 turns out to be the few in bold type. Like an idiot I thought my money would get us these early season races and a week of the Giro before we head over to start our bike tour season. I should have just ponied up the $15 they want for the Giro or perhaps skipped it entirely and hoped for free live streaming video from elsewhere? GRAZIE to cyclingfans.com for pointing me to the free Eurosport coverage of L-B-L! I guess I should not be surprised as Universal’s owned by NBC which is owned by who now, Comcast? Cycling fans in the USA get screwed once again as Versus didn’t show the thing until the wee hours of Monday morning, from what I hear.

Velonista April 25, 2011 at 11:27 pm

@Colnago Con Brio: as Jean Bobet put it: “Cogito ergo sunk.”

REG April 26, 2011 at 12:21 am

“He explained FDJ had put doping behind it.” As I believe the other French teams have also. Perhaps why they can only sustain “Continental” status amongst the pro peloton. But the French teams just did it, without the big anti-doping media campaigns like HTC and Garmin. Bravo France.

grolby April 26, 2011 at 1:23 am

And that’s a loss for the French teams, REG; a lack of media savvy isn’t something to applaud the French teams for. Garmin would not be the success that it is without smart PR.

Wal April 26, 2011 at 1:32 am

I’m always at a bit of a loss when a rider does well in some races, any races, and thoughts turn immediately to the Grand Tours. Why? We don’t look at a Grand Tour winner and think that their career won’t be complete without a Spring Classic win under their belt.

I’ve seen far too many riders damage their career and reduce their palmares by failing to play to their strengths – all in an effort to win that elusive Tour or Giro or Vuelta against riders who are naturally suited to it.

REG April 26, 2011 at 3:07 am

@grolby, but maybe not. All that Garmin or HTC need is one positive and their whole anti-doping house of cards comes… under the microscope (Trent Lowe?). Shouting, “we’re dope free,” infers the others aren’t. That said, you’re correct, the French could take some PR lessons.

grolby April 26, 2011 at 6:31 am

When everyone thinks that the others aren’t dope free anyway, why does it matter what your shouting might imply; and in any case, the doping-related PR of other teams was never Garmin’s problem; it was an issue before Slipstream ever arrived in Europe! It is the very reason Slipstream exists. They implied nothing that everyone didn’t already believe. If anything, Garmin showed those teams a way forward and a way to regain the trust of the public.

Big Snoz Oz April 26, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Go easy on Trent Lowe REG… no way was he involved in doping. All he did was take some bad advice re: how to handle his team holding back $$$ it owed him, then JV went on the offensive (as the best defense) and blamed it all on Trent. He knew nothing of the doctors rep and only had blood taken for routine testing. So don’t go tarnishing his name with your smarmy innuendo!

REG April 27, 2011 at 1:45 am

Actually, I see the difference between the French and American teams handling anti-doping PR as more of a sociological issue. the French are generally much more understated than Americans in all aspects of life. I think Vaughters has walked a marketing tightrope between the omertà and marketing a clean team. Regarding Trent Lowe, he rode for Garmin and fell under suspicion only by visiting the ex-Postal doctor. That’s how tenuous the situation is these days thanks to years of the UCI looking the other way.

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