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Philippe Gilbert's Roubaix win crowned a weekend of sporting comebacks

15 Apr 2019

It was quite the Sunday for sporting nostalgists. Tiger Woods shot a 70 in the final round at Augusta to slip on the Masters' green jacket for the fifth time in his career.

After going under the knife multiple times for knee and back surgery, battling an addiction to painkillers and dealing with mounting personal dramas, it was Woods's first major win since 2008, his first Masters title since 2005 and his 15th career major, too.

Many are calling the greatest comeback in sporting history and it's, understandably, dominating the news headlines. But Woods was not the only completed sporting comeback of the weekend, no.

Across the Atlantic ocean, another great sporting comeback much closer to home was becoming complete: Philippe Gilbert capped his racing renaissance with victory at the Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix.

It was a ride that firmly placed Gilbert in the cycling history books but also crowned his incredible resurgence to being one of the sport's greatest riders.

You see this Roubaix victory comes from a rider reborn.

In 2011, Gilbert took the Ardennes quadruple of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Fleche Wallonne, Amstel Gold and Brabantse Pijl, the Clasica San Sebastien, Strade Bianche and the Belgian road race title.

A promising junior who had progressed year-on-year, the French-speaking Wallonian was the sport's best one-day rider by 2011, its most lucrative asset and on a fast track to being crowned as one of cycling's racing kings.

It earned him a move to BMC Racing which came with a long-term contract and a big salary. By 2012, he was World Champion but from then on his career hit a wall.

Four years Gilbert spent at BMC, and while he did take a third Amstel title, at times it looked as if Gilbert was lost. He earned a handful of Monument top 10s in his BMC days but it was not the same rider as old.

Sometimes he looked disinterested, other times he simply was not good enough. He wanted to race the Cobbled Classics but his team were not willing to risk picking him alongside their star act, Greg Van Avermaet.

It seemed as if Gilbert's career was going to be defined by a single period of 18 months in which he conquered the world before fading off into the distance.

That was until his career was offered a lifeline. Out of contract, QuickStep's Patrick Lefevere took a punt on his compatriot.

Knowing the talent was there, the Godfather of Classics racing gave the former high-earner a minimal contract but the incentive of big bonuses if he won big races.

Philippe Gilbert attacking at the 2017 Tour of Flanders

Four months in, he'd won the Tour of Flanders from an emphatic 50km solo break and a fourth Amstel Gold title. A year and a half in, we had seen a new side of Gilbert, willing to ride selflessly for stronger teammates, helping the likes of Niki Terpstra and Bob Jungels to their own Monument success. 

Two years in, he can now count the Queen of the Classics among his palmares. 

Reacting to an opportune attack by Nils Politt in the final feed zone, Gilbert forced a move that brought out the day's strongest riders with 65km left to race.

Eventually, he whittled down the likes of Wout van Aert, Sep Vanmarcke and Peter Sagan leaving just him and Politt to race for the winner's cobble. The final sprint was never a fair fight, Gilbert's victory was always assured.

Forget Van Aert burning matches after his mechanical problems or Vanmarcke's bike failing in the final 10km, Gilbert was the strongest rider in yesterday's race. In the end, his win looked comfortable.

It also ended a drought that almost saw so no Belgian rider win a one-day Cobbled Classic for the first time since before the Second World War. It also brought Lefevere his career 700th victory and his 13th Roubaix win with a seventh different rider.

It also propelled Gilbert into lofted company.

Victory at Roubaix puts Gilbert into a category of rider we haven't seen for almost three decades, the likes of which I haven't seen in my lifetime.

He is the first rider to win four of cycling's five Monuments since Sean Kelly in 1986 and only the ninth rider in history to have done this.

He is only the fifth rider to have ever won four of cycling's Monuments and a world title and only the third rider, alongside Rik Van Looy and Eddy Merckx, to have won four different Monuments, a world title and a stage at all three of cycling's Grand Tours.

He is also the only rider in the current peloton with a podium at all five Monuments, too.

It's a height that none of his peers have managed to reach, not even Sagan or Alejandro Valverde, and it sets him apart from his era but, honestly, there could be more.

Realistically, there is only one thing left for Gilbert to do and that is win Milan-San Remo, the only Monument the Belgian is yet to capture.

He has come excruciatingly close finishing third in 2008 and 2011 but he has never quite made one of his daring attacks stick.

From now until next March, Gilbert will only be thinking about San Remo. About climbing the Poggio faster than ever before, descending it flawlessly, holding the gap on the Via Roma.

All other races are insignificant because all other races are merely trivial in the grand scheme of Gilbert's career, from this point.

Win San Remo and you are one of cycling's greatest ever riders. Just him, Merck, Van Looy and Roger de Vlaeminck good enough to win all five Monuments. Only him, Merckx and Van Looy good enough for all five and a World title.

In January of 2018, fresh from winning the Tour of Flanders the spring before, Gilbert told a huddle of journalists that he could and would win all five Monuments. He also told us that Paris-Roubaix was not that hard.

His palmares and QuickStep comeback had earned him the right to make such claims but I'd be lying if us journalists did not laugh of his claims. However, after Sunday, I think Gilbert could be right.