He is Belgian Sports Personality of the year, Belgian Cyclist of the Year and has won the Kristallen Fiets in three consecutive years – Philippe Gilbert is an absolute superstar in his native Belgium. He has also ridden his way into the hearts of fans outside Belgium and enjoys recognition from both cycling fans and the riders in the peloton. In the 2011 season he is by far the most successful rider in the spring classics.
True to the spirit of saving the best for last Gilbert has consistently improved his form and peaked just at the right time. He began memorizing the route of the Tour of Flanders very early on, trained on his home turf for Liege-Bastogne-Liege and deliberately did not take part in the “Queen of the classics”? When he was asked why he hadn’t taken part in the hell of the north, where it is often crashes that decide the outcome of the race, he said, “Paris-Roubaix is a race that can put an end to your career”.
Strengthened by set-backs
Phil overcomes set-backs very well and he appears to emerge from them even stronger. One of his main aims in 2010 was the world championships in Geelong. Everything was set up for a victory. His form was perfect and he was by far the strongest rider in the entire race but only managed 18th place after his 6th place finish in 2009. What went wrong? On the penultimate climb he threw all his eggs into one basket and attacked but his efforts were thwarted by the strong headwind and he was unable to drop the peloton, which had been cut to pieces by the extremely tough race. At the finish line it was Thor Hushovd who became world champion. However, just one week later Philippe again found his peak form, firstly defending his title at the Tour of Piedmont and later at the Tour of Lombardy.
With the disappointment of missing out on the world title still on his mind, he used the winter to do some intensive preparation and to impressive effect as we have now seen.
A decision straight from the heart – Philippe returns to his native Belgium
Philippe learned his trade as a racing cyclist with La Française des Jeux. In 2002, when he was a Stagiaire (trainee), he made it right to the top of the podium on four occasions. Therefore it was a mere formality that he was offered a pro contract, thereby integrating him into the team on a long-term basis. In the subsequent years he worked diligently on his form focusing on the classics. With several victories in less prestigious events he underscored his potential time and time again and took part in his first major stage race in 2004. At the Giro d’Italia he rode for his captain Bradley McGee, who finished 8th in the overall classification. In the subsequent four years the team insisted that Gilbert start the Tour de France although this was something which the Walloon was not 100% keen on even back then, because he would have preferred to concentrate on the classics and gain important victories in them.
Therefore the only noteworthy win at the spring classics between 2003 and 2007 in his list of victories was at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2006. It was in 2008 that he made it onto the podium in one of the monuments of cycling, even though it was not in his native Belgium but at Milan-San-Remo, the so-called “race to the sun”. Three weeks prior to that he had triumphed for the second time at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He then began to wonder whether La Française des Jeux really was the right team for him. It was above all the future prospect of riding as captain of a Belgian team at the classics that made him decide to join Silence-Lotto. “I didn’t decide in favour of the most lucrative offer. Six pro teams wanted to sign me. I looked carefully at all the offers on the table”, said Phil after he decided in favour of the team from his native Belgium. Marc Sergeant, his new Team Manager said even back then, “We really do want him. He is one of the best riders in the world”. Philippe has certainly paid back the trust put in him back then with some extraordinary performances.
Not just a lottery but a major success story – Gilbert’s time with Silence-Lotto und Omega Pharma-Lotto
Now riding Canyon bikes Phil really picked up momentum. In the spring he made it onto the podium at the Tour of Flanders and demonstrated his strength in his Wallonian homeland at the Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, finishing 4th in both events. His victory in the penultimate stage of the Giro d’Italia in May wasn’t just his first win a major stage race, but also hoisted Canyon onto the podium of a major tour for the very first time.
However, that was only the first part of his planning for the season. In consultation with the team managers from Silence-Lotto he did not take part in the Tour de France and left the world’s greatest stage race to other key men. Phil then concentrated on the latter part of the season in autumn. It was to be a golden October for him with four victories in just nine days! He claimed the Coppa Sabatini, Paris-Tours, the Tour of Piedmont and finally the Tour of Lombardy. Philippe Gilbert had now won his first monument of cycling and was hungry for more.
When in 2010 the first whisperings from the critics came that Phil was perhaps not capable of winning a big spring classic, he answered these doubts in no uncertain terms. Although the team had to wait a long time for the first win of the season, it was one of the most important of the last few years for Gilbert and the team. The Walloon triumphed at the Amstel Gold Race! However, in that season a further highlight was planned. Philippe had his eyes on the world championship, which he missed out on although he was the strongest rider in the field. In spite of this set-back he was still able to repeat his victory in both the Tour of Lombardy and the Tour of Piedmont. Prior to that he was able to win two stages of the Vuelta seemingly in passing and even wore the leader’s red jersey on five occasions. At the end of that event he moved up to third place in the UCI-Ranking!
This season he has started where he left off last season, namely with outstanding victories and a style of riding that is impossible to match. With his 3rd place finish in Milan-San-Remo he was not quite able to achieve his main goal, but once again made it onto the podium after 2008, although his joy was restrained as he would have preferred to have been in top spot. However the spring was not yet over and he consistently improved his form. Although he only managed to finish 9th in the Tour of Flanders, his focus was clearly on the Wallonian classics. Even before the key week he secured victory in the Brabant Arrow. He then impressively defended his title at the Amstel Gold Race, and was then victorious at Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It was plain for all to see just how much he enjoyed celebrating the victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege in front of his home fans. His fiercest rivals Andy and Frank Schleck were full of praise for Philippe at the end of the race saying, “There was just no stopping Gilbert at the finish. He was simply too strong for us”.
An all-rounder who can win on all types of course
There is no specific type of course which seems to suit Phil best. The long distance classics are of course his forte, but he is equally capable of competing in rather flat events such as Milan-San-Remo as well as events like Flèche Wallonne, which finishes on a climb. Before Flèche Wallonne Phil said that the Wall of Huy would be too tough for him, however it was here that he dropped his rivals and proved that he can hold his own on the climbs too. For Gilbert it is important that the race is made really tough because in a bunch sprint he is not quite fast enough to be in the mix with the top sprinters. However, if he is able to drop the out-and-out sprinters before the finish, he is more than capable of winning both alone and from a small breakaway group. When asked about the 2011 world championship course in Copenhagen, Phil commented that it wasn’t hard enough for him…