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Striving for Milan-San Remo: Philippe Gilbert profile

In-depth
19 Mar 2021
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Last winter, we went to a Lotto-Soudal team camp for a sit down with their then newest signing, Philippe Gilbert. Now 38, Gilbert has won four of cycling's five Monuments – only Milan-San Remo is missing, something he will look to change this weekend

Words James Witts Photography Sean Hardy and Offside

April 2019, and with 49km to go in Paris-Roubaix, Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Philippe Gilbert bridges the gap between the main bunch and a breakaway that includes Nils Politt, Yves Lampaert, Wout van Aert, Sep Vanmarcke and defending champion Peter Sagan. After repeated attacks and counterattacks, eventually Katusha’s Politt manages to break free of the group, and only Gilbert has the strength to follow him.

The pair enters the velodrome together, and despite the 25-year-old German’s best efforts, he is no match in the sprint for the veteran Belgian, and Gilbert takes the win easily to record his first victory at Paris-Roubaix.

The win means that, at the age of 37, Gilbert has now collected four of the five Monuments – the most lauded one-day Classics in the cycling calendar. The only one missing from his trophy cabinet is the epic 298km Milan-San Remo, which would have taken place in March.

Can he reach the top step in San Remo to become only the fourth rider, after fellow Belgians Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck and Eddy Merckx, to win all five Monuments?

‘It’s an aim and a possibility, of course,’ he tells Cyclist when we meet at a training camp in Mallorca in December, ‘but it’s a very different race than the other four. There are numerous small climbs at the end.

‘I think I’ve raced 15 San Remos and the finish scenario has been different every time. I was up there when Filippo Pozzato won in a breakaway [2006], when Vincenzo Nibali attacked on the Poggio [2018] and when Fabian Cancellara broke in the last kilometre [2008].

‘I was ready to challenge in 2019 but [teammate Julian] Alaphilippe was in super form and we did everything for him. And that was the right decision because he won. It showed again that at a Classic you don’t win alone – it’s all down to the team. That said, I could be following Merckx, who won it seven times, and if I don’t have the legs, I won’t win. You need the legs.’ 

Moving on

The camp in Mallorca is not just a chance for Gilbert to get some sunny training miles in his legs. It’s also a chance for him to settle into his new team for 2020, Lotto-Soudal.

The past three years at QuickStep have been incredibly fruitful for Gilbert – including wins at Flanders and Amstel Gold in 2017 and Paris-Roubaix in 2019, as well as a couple of stage wins at the Vuelta a España – so it might seem strange that the in-form Belgian rider should end up parting company with the all-conquering Belgian team.

To understand the reasons, it helps to go back to Stage 16 of the 2018 Tour de France, from Carcassonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon in the Pyrenees.

Gilbert was riding in support of Alaphilippe, who was in the polka dot jersey, and yet on the slopes of Col de Portet-d’Aspet Gilbert attacked and soon opened up a one-minute lead on the pack. He crossed the summit alone, but on the descent he lost control on a tight corner, striking a low wall and flipping over into the trees below.

It brought back memories of Fabio Casartelli’s fatal crash on the same descent in 1995. Thankfully Gilbert reached out from the undergrowth, remounted and cycled the 60km to the finish line. He celebrated Alaphilippe’s stage win through the pain of a broken kneecap.

Twelve months later, Gilbert was fit and ready to race his 10th Tour. The call came… that he’d be a reserve.

‘It was a great disappointment,’ Gilbert says. Doubly so as the race started in his home country. While Alaphilippe put pen to paper on a new two-year contract, Gilbert’s ink ran dry.

‘My contract was up. I’d had other offers, but I waited for [team manager Patrick] Lefevere. At first, I wanted to stay, but there was always an excuse. One time it was, “I need an answer from Specialized [QuickStep’s bike sponsor].”

‘The next it was, “I need an answer from Deceuninck.” Then, “I need an answer from QuickStep.” He pushed me until it reached the point where I said, “I can’t wait any longer. I’m opening the door to other teams.”’

Gilbert received plenty of offers. ‘I’m not saying who. It doesn’t matter. But this project [at Lotto-Soudal] provided the greatest motivation, as well as a three-year deal. At my age that’s appreciated, and I’m sure this will be my last contract.

‘I know I can race longer but I’ll be 40. You can enjoy a nice life until you’re 60 or 70, if you’re lucky. After that, it’s downhill. I want to embrace life after cycling. I don’t want to stop and think, “Fuck, I only cycled.”’

Playing the Lotto

Gilbert is no stranger to the Lotto-Soudal setup. He rode for the ‘other’ Belgian WorldTour team between 2009 and 2011 under the leadership of current sports manager Marc Sergeant. He’s also on good terms with general manager John Lelangue, who helped establish the BMC team where Gilbert raced from 2012 to 2016.

‘Over the past few years, I watched the team from the outside and I think maybe they lacked a real leader in the Classics,’ Gilbert says. ‘I’ll try to lift the team to a higher level, by performing myself but also by improving the other riders.’

If that sounds a touch arrogant, it doesn’t show in the way he behaves around the training camp with his new teammates. Prior to our interview, Cyclist shadowed Gilbert on a five-hour ride with the other Lotto-Soudal riders. We observed how he would shift backwards and forwards through the group, chatting to his teammates, forging bonds with effortless charm.

To our eyes Gilbert stood out from the bunch, partly because of his natural aura and partly because of the UCI’s archaic rule that means new riders must wear their old team’s kit until 1st January.

It meant the red-and-white of the Lotto-Soudal peloton was scarred by QuickStep’s blue-and-white. And a hint of red-and-black, too, as Trek-Segafredo’s John Degenkolb is the team’s other big signing.

Despite losing Classics rider Tiesj Benoot to Sunweb and lacking a GC leader, the Belgian team looks stronger for 2020, with the likes of Gilbert and Tim Wellens chasing the Classics, Thomas de Gendt the breakaways and Caleb Ewan the sprints.

Degenkolb should bolster the team in both one-dayers and sprints if he can replicate the form that saw him win Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo between 2014 and 2015, before the traumatic Calpe crash of January 2016 when a car wiped him out along with several Giant-Alpecin teammates. Gilbert believes he can, with the right support.

‘It was a terrible accident requiring many operations. I have read comments that he’s finished. No way. But living with that memory is hard and affects confidence. I don’t think his team helped him enough, either. But we will. We will rebuild his confidence. He’s still strong. He showed that when winning a stage of the Tour in 2018, and he will be better than the past few years.’

Gilbert’s golden year

Of course, Degenkolb has won the Monument that has so far eluded Gilbert. The closest the Belgian came to winning Milan-San Remo was in his annus mirabilis of 2011. On that occasion HTC-Highroad’s Matt Goss outsprinted him but, as has often been the case in Gilbert’s career, disappointment fuelled success.

In the space of 10 spring days that followed, Gilbert won Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Only one other rider, Davide Rebellin in 2004, has won all three Ardennes Classics in the same season.

‘No rider has won those four races,’ Gilbert adds. ‘But Liège was the most special of them all. I’d watched it live from a young age as the road heading to La Redoute was 50 metres from where I lived. When I race it now, lots of family and friends come out to watch. It holds great memories.’

During 2011, in an amazing year of racing for Lotto, Gilbert’s victories stretched to 18 and he recorded 36 top-10s in all. He’s never reached such heights again, often playing the domestique role in stage and one-day races. Seven wins in both 2009 and 2014 is the closest but he still managed four in 2019 including, of course, that Roubaix win.

That makes it 77 wins in all since turning professional in 2003, which is eighth overall among the current peloton. That’s impressive when the majority of the race-winners around him on that list are pure sprinters, with Andre Greipel topping the table at 155. Mark Cavendish is in second with 146. The only non-sprinter ahead of Gilbert is Alejandro Valverde with 127 victories.

‘When I’m good, I’m really strong,’ Gilbert says. ‘And not good for one day – good for a week, two weeks, even three weeks sometimes. And when I’m really good, normally I’ll win.’

It’s this self-assuredness that marks Gilbert out. It’s not a brash, hollow confidence, but an easy, genial self-belief that helps to separate him from his rivals.

‘If there’s 15km to go and someone asks me what are my chances of winning, out of 10, I would say seven. If there’s 10km to go, I’d say eight. The last 5km, I’d say 10 out of 10. My confidence rises if I have a chance of winning. With other guys it’s the opposite. They feel stressed and lose control, dropping from maybe 10 out of 10 with 15km to go, to five out of 10 with 3km to go. They are scared. I’m not.’

Attacking outsider

Gilbert grew up in the Wallonia region of Belgium and spent his youth idolising stars such as Johan Museeuw, Andrea Tafi and Franco Ballerini. ‘They were up for a fight and never waited,’ Gilbert says. ‘I picked up my attacking instinct from them.’

Equal motivation came from a source closer to home: ‘My grandfather died young so my grandmother was left to raise six children. There was no money, so she told them that they had to work from an early age just to pay for food. And that meant no sport. It was a difficult time. My father was never allowed to race. He wanted to but couldn’t. When I became pro, this gave me added purpose.’

Gilbert’s first pro contract came with French team FDJeux.com in 2003, with his first victory coming on Stage 3 of the Tour Down Under a year later. By 2006 he had a Classics victory at Omloop Het Volk, and the wins stacked up until he secured his first Monument at Il Lombardia in 2009 by outsprinting Samuel Sanchez.

By this point he was racing for Lotto, and in 2010 he won the first of four Amstel Gold titles, followed by two stage wins at the Vuelta and reclamation of his Lombardia crown in atrocious weather. 2011 saw those 10 days of spring joy plus wins at the Tour of Belgium, the ZLM Tour, the Belgian national championships, Clasica San Sebastian and GP Quebec.

In 2011 Gilbert was in the last year of his contract with Lotto and was hot property. QuickStep sniffed around but BMC Racing secured his services instead for a reported $4 million salary, some of which Gilbert ended up returning to Lotto after a long legal battle resulted in the Belgian courts ordering he repay his former team €300,000 in bonuses.

His 2011 achievements activated a €715,000 bonus on top of his €1.2 million salary but, argued the team, on the proviso he remained with them for 2012. The case rumbled on until 2016.

The consensus is that Gilbert went backwards at BMC and he certainly didn’t repeat that golden 2011. Then again, he still won 19 times including the World Championships in 2012 and another Amstel title before switching to QuickStep in 2017.

Now in his final years as a top pro at Lotto-Soudal, Gilbert says his motivation remains high. In 2020 he’ll look to peak at the missing Monument, the Belgian Classics and, he hopes, at his 10th Tour.

His local knowledge will surely help when this year’s edition starts in Nice, near his home town of Monaco. The Olympics might be on the horizon, although he has ‘yet to hear anything’ from the Belgian cycling association.

And after that? Does he have any retirement plans? ‘Whatever I do, it will be outdoors,’ he says. ‘Who knows, I could be a gardener? My brother runs a small garden company and I often help. It’s hard work, especially in Belgium where it can be freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer, but I love starting from nothing and then, a week later, you see everything’s changed and you have this beautiful garden.

‘And I dream of walking the Mercantour National Park. It starts in France and crosses into Italy. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the world. You can go there on a gravel bike, but by then I think I’ll be ready to cover it on foot.’ 

Phil yer boots…

Just some of the highlights of Gilbert’s 17-year career

2004: Takes his first pro win at the Tour Down Under and rides his first ever Grand Tour at the Giro later in the year.

2006: Registers a first Classics win at Omloop Het Volk, but his form for the rest of the year is steady rather than spectacular.

2008: After a lacklustre 2007, rides strongly in the spring in his final season with FdJ, including a second Omloop success.

2009: Now with Silence-Lotto, Gilbert scores his first Grand Tour stage win at the Giro and ends the year with a win at the Giro di Lombardia.

2010: Two stage wins at the Vuelta and a repeat success at Lombardia marks Gilbert’s strongest season yet.

2011: Records four straight Classics wins in April then wins the Tour of Belgium to end the year ranked number one  in the world.

2012: Now with BMC, a frustrating season ends on a high with another two Vuelta stage wins and the World Road Race Championships.

2014: Back-to-back wins at Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold mark the best campaign in Gilbert’s five years with BMC.

2016: After a year that yields just a pair of Tour de Luxembourg stage wins and the national road race title, Gilbert switches to QuickStep Floors.

2017: Returns to winning ways with his new team, claiming the Flanders-Amstel Gold double to cap an excellent spring Classics campaign.

2019: Wins Paris-Roubaix to leave Milan-San Remo as the only remaining Monument missing from his trophy cabinet.

Gilbert on…

…Regrets

‘I don’t really have any as, every time I’ve been in contention, I’ve never lost through a mistake. OK, maybe once when I finished second to Greg Van Avermaet at the 2017 E3 Harelbeke. I focussed too much on Oliver Naesen in the sprint. If I’d focussed on my own sprint I’d have won. I’ve still never won that race and I was very pissed off that day. But I used it as motivation. A week later I won the Tour of Flanders.’

…Strongest opposition

‘It has to be Peter Sagan. He’s really smart and able to do everything. With a lot of guys, I knew if I was at the right moment of the race I could drop them or beat them. But with him I’m never sure. Racing with the Schlecks, for example, I knew I’d win a sprint. Joaquim Rodriguez the same. Boonen, I knew I could drop him. Sagan? He can react to anything and then drop you. He’s strong.’

…Growing old

‘There have always been guys nearing 40 who have raced at a high level. Guys like Chris Horner, Jens Voigt and George Hincapie. The amount of science and data behind us also means we train smarter and so are less likely to overtrain or be injured. Still, whatever age you are, it’s not difficult to be in the final group, but winning is a different matter. It’s very hard.’