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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.