Philippe Gilbert has done what was truly the unthinkable. In sweeping the four races of the Ardennes Week—Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege—Gilbert has taken a quartet of victories no other rider has ever achieved. Even the triple of Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and L-B-L seemed too much to reasonably hope for, yet he went hope one further. How many riders can tell Roger De Vlaeminck, Rik Van Looy and Eddy Merckx to go suck it?
In the current issue (#3) of peloton magazine I put forward the suggestion that Gilbert is a rider cut in the mold of Rik Van Looy, the only rider to win each of the major classics. In the course of his career, Van Looy won each of the Monuments at least once, resulting in eight total wins of our greatest one-day races. What is interesting is that Gilbert’s victories in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Amstel Gold set him apart from Van Looy. The Emperor of Herentals, as he was known, never won Amstel or the Omloop Het Volk, as it was called in his day.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege marks only Gilbert’s third Monument, following his two wins at the Tour of Lombardy. Like Roger De Vlaeminck he has shown the ability to climb with the very best Grand Tour riders in a one-day race, and yet can sprint with Classics riders like Boonen. And that’s the trick.
Unlike his Belgian forebears Johan Museeuw and Peter Van Petegem, whose sole wins in the Monuments came in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Gilbert has shown he can win south of Paris. Only a handful of riders, including De Vlaeminck and Michele Bartoli have won both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Lombardy during their careers. Of course, Merckx did that, too.
What’s most interesting about Gilbert isn’t his ability to win on any terrain, though that is certainly part of his strength and his appeal. And it isn’t the fact that he is well-poised to become the greatest one-day rider of his generation, with the potential to win a greater range of races than Fabian Cancellara or Tom Boonen. No, what makes Gilbert so interesting is his capacity to surprise, his sheer wily-ness.
For us, the question isn’t so much if he’ll win the Tour of Flanders, it’s which year and on which muur he’ll launch his attack. His combination of incredible strength and tactical sensibility were on full display during Liege-Bastogne-Liege. In fact, the greatest move of the race wasn’t the attack that separated Gilbert and the Schleck brothers from, well, from anything that might have mattered. The greatest move was after dumping Andy Schleck on the Côte de Saint-Nicholas; rather than try to drag brother Frank to the finish, Gilbert backed off, allowing Andy to chase back on. The effort kept Schleck the younger on the rivet and prevented him from being much of a factor in the sprint.
Had Gilbert continued, Frank wouldn’t have taken a single pull, and while it was unlikely he could have taken Gilbert in the sprint, there was no point in towing him to the finish and taking that risk. Once Andy returned to the duo, with both Schlecks present and accounted for, they were obligated to take their pulls. Tactically, Gilbert could have sat on them, yet he continued to take strong pulls to make the break work, but it was obvious from his positioning on the road that he was ever-mindful of the risk of an attack from one of the Schlecks.
With four consecutive wins, questions about the source of Gilbert’s strength threaten to spoil our enjoyment of a simple bike race. We’ve no reason to doubt he’s clean other than success and if we are to doubt a rider who wins, we are to doubt all of racing. The sport is too good for that. Let’s enjoy the day.
We’re seeing a rare rider emerge, one with the potential to win on any day. We had better keep our eyes peeled.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International