Philippe Gilbert and the Myth of Goals

Last week Omega Pharma-Lotto director sportif Marc Sergeant squashed conjecture concerning Philippe Gilbert’s goals for the 2011 season. In an interview with Cyclingnews Sergeant refuted the idea that Gilbert might be a contender for the 2011 Tour de France.

Sergeant indicated that in his talks with the star, Gilbert indicated that he would try for the Vuelta or the Giro before attempting the Tour.

“I know that it could be too hard to try at the Tour de France where the riders there are at the highest level and he was certainly talking about the future, not 2011,” Sergeant told Cyclingnews. “Let’s say he wins Amstel again and perhaps one day the Tour of Flanders, then he can turn around and say that he’s proved he’s one of the best one-day riders and now he’s going to try and tackle something different but we have to wait and see.”

In this, Sergeant is both right and wrong. He’s right in that should Gilbert win the Amstel Gold Race again and follow with that a win in the Tour of Flanders in a subsequent season then he will have proven that he is one of the best one-day riders around. Why he would choose to go after Amstel again rather than going after Liege-Bastogne-Liege is another matter entirely. After all, there’s prestige and then there’s prestige.

As for tackling something different following successes in Amstel and Flanders is where Sergeant’s judgement comes up short. Sergeant could use a history lesson, in fact.

Victory in either the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix actually narrows a rider’s career prospects rather than broadening them. Not that a rider will earn less than he deserves or wind up on a lousy team (though that happens often enough—it’s just not the fault of the race), what it means is that the races a rider is likely to win narrows dramatically.

It’s a stunning piece of information.

Gianni Bugno was the last rider to win both the Tour of Flanders and a Grand Tour (the Giro). He won the Giro in 1990 and Flanders in ’94. The last rider to win both Flanders and the Tour in the same year was Eddy Merckx in ’69. Before that it was Louison Bobet in ’55. Merckx is the only rider to win all three (Flanders, Giro and Tour). Rudy Altig won the Vuelta in ’62 and Flanders in ’64, making him the only rider to win both the Vuelta and Flanders, other than Merckx.

It may seem like a rider as talented as Philippe Gilbert should be able to take a season and focus his efforts on a singular goal such as the Vuelta or the Giro. However, history suggests that as riders have increased their specialization in targeting specific races a curious clumping of victories has taken place.

In short, riders who win the Northern Classics, such as the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad don’t go on to Grand Tour wins.

Recent guys to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad include Johan Museeuw, Thor Hushovd, Juan Antonio Flecha, Peter Van Petegem, and Michele Bartoli, guys who didn’t come close to winning a Grand Tour. The last guy to win both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and a Grand Tour was the outlier of outliers: Eddy Merckx. He took both in 1973.

Since 1973 if you won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, one thing in your career was assured: No Grand Tour victories for you. It seems entirely counterintuitive to suggest one victory could prevent another, but victory in this semi-classic includes a dead end.

Gilbert has already won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad twice, in 2006 and 2008. He’s 28. By the time he was 28, Eddy Merckx had already won four Tours de France, four Giri d’Italia, the Vuelta a Espana, two World Championships, five Milan-San Remos, the Tour of Flanders, three Paris-Roubaix, four editions of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and two Tours of Lombardy, plus three editions of Paris-Nice. If Gilbert was destined to rival Merckx, the world’s number three rider would have shown more by now.

It’s impossible to say that Gilbert absolutely won’t win a Grand Tour in his lifetime, but I don’t think I will come up with more conclusive evidence of a finer rider who simply doesn’t have the credentials to suggest he will win a Vuelta, Giro or Tour.

There may not be a faster rider alive unable to win a Grand Tour.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. bikemike

    I’m a huge Gilbert fan. Having said that, I really hope he never comtemplates attempting to become a grand tour contender. Besides the fact that he’s a phenominal (sp?) one day rider, i’m not sure he has the body type or temperment needed to be a grand tour contender. His penchant for long solo attacks wins him races, but that doesn’t translate well during 3 week long stage races. He could be one of the greatest one day racers ever; I hope he doesn’t throw that away trying to be something he’s not.

    (See cuddles for a prime example of this in action).

  2. todd k

    Great observations Padraig.

    I also cannot think of many riders that began their pro careers riding strongly in classic style races and then developed into GC winners. The only rider I can think of is Francesco Moser winning the Paris Roubaix, La Fleche Wallone, Gent-Wevelgem, and Paris-Tours in the 70’s prior to winning the Giro in 84. And that was an atypically flat Giro. Maybe the next closest I can identify is Freddy Maerten’s winning minor classics in Gent-Wevelgem and Amstel prior to his Vuelta win. (I thought maybe Sean Kelly , but he had been 4th in the Vuelta before he won Lombardia the first time.) I may be missing some one, though.

    It may be that he ought to at least add Gent Wevelgem victory to his palmares before giving it a go, though! (He came close this year- 3rd.)

  3. James

    This pretty much shows that Merckx was the aberration of aberrations! I’d say it’s very doubtful anyone will ever be a classics guy and a grand tour guy, especially of the Merckx type. There has been talk of Cancellara trying to win a Grand Tour in the future also. If the stats you have accumulated say anything it says DON’T BOTHER! I find it admirable in a guy to at least try once. So, I say Phillipe…give it a go!

    1. Author

      Thanks everyone for your comments.

      BikeMike: You bring up an interesting example in Cuddles. It’s fair to wonder if he’s a one-day man trying to be a Grand Tour rider. In fairness, he’s done a pretty good job, short of the win.

      Todd K: Likewise, I noticed that aspect of Moser’s record. Hinault won Gent-Wevelgem and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in ’77, the year before he won his first Tour.

      I’ll be developing this idea further in a piece for peloton magazine. As it turns out, Grand Tour riders are eligible to win three of the five Monuments.

      James: Merckx makes outliers like Armstrong look just pretty good.

      The Potato Man: It’s true that Armstrong was good in one-day races prior to the cancer diagnosis in ’96. He was also doing well in short stage races (I still recall how he shredded the field at the ’96 Tour DuPont) and I attended a press conference where Jim Ochowicz said that winning the Tour was clearly a goal.

  4. SinglespeedJarv

    I don’t want Gilbert to target a Grand Tour. I want him to challenge Cancellara over who can be the first to win all five “Monuments”. I don’t like the fact the cycling is all about the Tour de France. I miss things like the World Cup, which made one-day races as important as the Grand Tours. I think Gilbert can do cycling a massive favour by sticking to the classics. He’s my favourite for Flanders and I’ll put money on him winning a third consecutive Lombardia as well.

  5. Robot

    I see a bit of convergence going on here. On the one hand, the grand tour specialists keep getting nabbed for doping, Contador, Ulrich, Valverde, Armstrong, Pantani, Mosquera, Vinokourov, etc., etc. And yes, before I get flamed, not all of those named have been convicted. My point is really that the incessant churn of doping related news aimed at the GT boys has done a lot to take the shine off those prizes.

    At the same time, we have this cabal of one-day riders, Cancellara, Hushovd, Gilbert, etc. who are winning with class and burnishing the prestige of the Classics, which, I think, had diminished through the ’90s and ’00s.

    Love him or hate him, Cadel Evans may be at the leading edge of this convergence. He showed what he can do at Fleche Wallone, and then gave a more than credible accounting of himself in the Tours he raced.

    It is just possible that the GT boys will dope themselves out of existence, and that will make room for the sorts of riders who used to dominate proceedings, all-rounders. If Gilbert could be one of those who could bridge to Tour contender, I would applaud him.

  6. todd k

    Padraig: I considered adding Hinault, but was not sure if one year of pro results in the Classics was enough to categorically label him as a classics rider or if he was just being bridled at the bit for a year to develop as a pro. He did win the Dauphiné Libéré in 77 and I gave him benefit of doubt that he could have raced the Tour well had he been chosen to ride that year. Ironically, though, we have Gent-Wevelgem showing up as a precursor again!

    Potato Man: Likewise I considered Armstrong, but I think I may have underplayed his wins in San Sebastian and La Fleche Wallone and over emphasized the lack of a win in one of the big five Classics. He did have that World title, but for whatever reason we always seem to treat that as a stand alone event rather than an extension of the classics, so I waffled about whether to include or exclude it in the context in which we were discussing Gilbert. Armstrong probably fits between Moser and Maertens if we exclude that victory. For sure if we included the World title he would be atypical and be considered a couple of bars above Moser given the extreme GT successes he had post cancer.

  7. Souleur

    all very good points fella’s and thanks Padraig for another stellar point. btw, heading to buy my first edition Peloton right now.

    Gilbert is a great rider and seemingly listening to a very wise coach, so we will see what 2011 holds for him.

    In terms of the divergence in personalities between spring classic winners and GC’rs, there well may be many variables at play. Many have been noted. I will add perhaps a couple of observations to this pot.

    One, is that it may be something special such as an essential classics genome. Every winner of the spring classics has a makeup, take for instance that of Spartacus et. al. The Hardmen have a different makeup entirely. They relish in eating cobbles for breakfast and Rouling out into hellish North winds. The thin and whispy are not endowed naturally for this, and thus we see a difference. Then you do have the GC’rs whom tend to be the overall disciplined rider who can hang in with the peloton for the most part, and climb over the Hors categorie pass’s in front and for whom can time trial as well. The thin and whispy take their loss early but paybacks are hell when they thrash these heavier colleagues over the mtn pass.

    A second observation is something we have talked about to some extent, that the Tours are becoming individually so rigorous that perhaps the riders are doping just to be able to achieve the levels of fitness required. Henri Desgrange developed this phenomena by pushing the human limits on the bike and it seems to be a reinvigorated fervor as of late. Ok. Fine, we know this. But do the riders dope to the same extent to ride the single day races? Or is it humanly feasible to be competitive for one day. Can a PRO dive into the depths of debt, pain and suffering to win and I am of the opinion that indeed some may. Doping may still exist, but its not the same as it is in the Grand Tours where it is a daily pummeling and the dope aids in their recovery and they become ‘superhuman’ and stretch these limits further than they really should.

    The Eddy’s of our time are superhuman, exceptional, but let me also say this, read history. Even riders back into the days of Eddy, Gaul, and priors were doping, so competing then and now was different, but not really…all in one.

    And then there is the convergence of it all today as riders spring board from single day races to the Grand Tours, just as they have for generations, some are able, most are not.

  8. todd k

    Robot: I would also like to consider Cadel as the leader of a movement in much the same regard. That said, an interview I read in November on cyclingnews suggested he was putting all his marbles back into the Tour basket saying “My whole season will be geared to that”. He didn’t really mention any of the Classics as objectives for 2011. Certainly he will race some of them, but he doesn’t speak of them. The cynical part of me says he appears to still have GT myopia despite his recent successes in one-day races. The optimistic side says that the number of one-day riders on BMC means he must to market himself as GT rider first (that is his “job”) and that he must seek victories in one days only as the opportunities arise or on the sly.

    I actually see Vinokourov increasingly fitting into this boat and Valverde (when he returns) will likely be in this same kind of position. These are riders that can certainly shine at one day events, but ( to race clean) cannot reasonably expect a Tour win to the degree that they can or should put all their eggs into one basket.

  9. Ron

    Anyone have a better shot of that bike that Gilbert is riding in that photo?

    And, nice article. Lots to think about here. Thanks!

  10. Adam

    Amazing that Cunego hasn’t come up in this. He’s likewise won Lombardia (three times) and Amstel, and has a Grand Tour to his name. The only thing separating him from Gilbert is a love of the cobbles. But I think he’s proof that riders now can no longer be in both the Tour and Classics camp.

    1. Author

      Ron: Thanks. Unfortunately, all my shots of Gilbert from that day are from that angle.

      Adam: There’s a good reason Cunego hasn’t come up in the conversation. In the last 20 years a few Grand Tour riders have won Milan-San Remo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy. It’s only Flanders and Roubaix that are prohibited for a GC rider. I’ll be exploring this further in a piece for peloton in Issue 3. I hope you’ll subscribe.

  11. Touriste-Routier

    Another thing to consider in the analysis is that the teams and the sport are a lot different now than in the Merckx/Maertens days and prior.

    This is to say that their teams were built around them as the leader for more or less the entire season. The captain was the captain, and the domestiques were the domestiques, who baring the occasional “gifts”, were not allowed too many opportunities to race for the win in major events.

    One must also consider, that the stars more or less raced all season. While I am sure there were goals and targets, the preparation was very different, and the sport as a whole was less specialized.

    Considering the current level of specialization, it is doubtful that we will see much crossover between success in the cobbled classics and success in the Grand Tours. The Ardennes Classics and Lombardia are a slightly different story.

  12. Marco Placero

    Old day Classics: a team leader like de Vlaeminck, Merckx, or Moser took charge, calculating off conditions, went hard off the front, rode everyone into the ground. Modern cycling seems choreographed, race lengths determining magnitude of effort and spontaneity. Does internet-amped sports betting induce choreography?

  13. randomactsofcycling

    Wow, how we all seem to yearn for someone to break the monotony of the GTs!
    How about including some others in here that realised too late they were mismatching their goals with their ability: Sylvain Chavanel – touted as the next French Tour hope, only to discover he’s really a Classics rider. Also, what about Stijn Devolder? He’s a guy who may be 2% behind Gilbert, but he’s a genuine all-rounder….something for thought…

  14. Robot

    Touriste-Routier makes a good point. It made me think that maybe what the sport is really wanting is a transcendent talent, like Merckx or Hinault, to come and break the monotony of the specialists contending only their own specialty.

    I also think that, at least in the States, we are ill-served by our media, so that most folks HAVE to pay the most attention to the Tour because it gets the best and most promoted coverage.

    I have hoped that all the doping in the Grand Tours would get the media to shift their focus to the Classics, but, in reality, the more doping (i.e. drama) the MORE popular the Tour gets.

    It’s more spectacle than race at this point. I’m sure I’m complicit in this in some way, which just takes me back to the idea that we need that transcendent rider to change the game.

  15. todd k

    Sadly, given the current suspicions and verified incidents regarding doping in the peloton in the contemporary pro peloton, if a transcendent rider arrived today most would not believe the rider was actually transcendent….. “See!? This is what happens when only one rider dopes in the peloton!”

  16. 68GT

    Great post and conversation. I’m very much looking forward to the full treatise in Peloton Magazine.

    If I may add a little more historical color to the discussion, Hinault was truly the last all-around rider. With 5 Tours, 3 Giri, a 2 Vueltas plus victories at Roubaix, LBL (2x) Lombardy (2x), Fleche Wallone (2x) Gent Wevelgem, Amstel and Worlds, really only Merckx surpasses him in breadth and volume of victories. Simply put, the mold is broken after guys like they are made. That is what makes them so special and the wait for the next one to come along so intriguing.

    To my way of thinking, only Cancellara has come close with proven results in 1 week stage races, cobbled classics, MSR, GTs and Worlds.

    But as has been rightly pointed out, the specialization of cycling in the current era makes that likelihood of proven all-around winner less likely, and it cuts both ways for the classics riders as it does for the GT riders. I for one admire those who at least race a complete season with an “in it to win it” attitude, which is to say they are fast in March, fast in October and every month in between. It’s less about the results than it is the effort.

    What’s for sure is that for at least the next few years, we can hope to be entertained by Cancellara, Gilbert, Hausler, Hushovd, Cunego and a few others I have surely overlooked who promise to do just that.

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