The Smartest Guy in the Race

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

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  1. K

    I felt genuinely sorry for the brothers Schleck watching the end of that race. Having two riders of the calibre of Andy and Frank coming in to the end of the race so far clear should be a dream scenario. Yet Gilbert looked to be in total control. Still, they look to be in fine form for the Grand Tours.

  2. Alex Torres

    I enjoyed the race and I´m glad that a rider like Gilbert won such a prestigious trophy. But deep inside I am disturbed by the lack of spine from the part of these two brothers. I´ll repeat what I said elsewhere: IMHO the leopards just made it too easy for the lion. And Gilbert deserved more. I can´t help myself missing the times when guys were racers instead of corporate dolls, and would lay it all on the road, die, kill or both trying everything to beat the opponent.

    Gilbert won longer before the sprint. Is it me or the aftermatch declarations of Andy and Frank show too much conformation? They “did their job”, “everything within their power” and I guess that´s exactly why they lost. I´d rather they be cocky and revolted or even proud, but I guess today´s peloton is just too politicaly correct for that kind of thing and it wouldn´t go down well with today´s audiences. Too bad. Gilbert may be unbeatable and he certainly deserved the win but they could have made him work a little harder, really (reaaally) trying, instead of putting up a show for the sponsors “getting the job done”.

    Well, if 2 of the best GT riders in the world could barely make Gilbert go anaerobic, then we´re up for some show come July. How can they expect to win the sweat and blood of their team coleagues with declarations like that? And how they expect to win our hearts? IMHO those are words of workers, domestiques, and not team leaders. Sign of times?

    Sorry, maybe I´m too cycnical and a little bitter today hehehe… Anyway is was a great race and classics season overall! And congrats to the great Philipe, an inspiring rider!!!

  3. Laurence

    Re. doping, I agree Padraig. Maybe I’m naïve but Gilbert doesn’t tick my dope-detector off. For me he represents all that is great about racing; he is strong, he has panache, he attacks, he thinks.
    It did seem odd seeing the Schlecks seemingly lead him home but as you say, Andy had nothing left. The brothers tried the best they could and hats off to them…hats off more to Pip, that’s all.
    My take here:

  4. Jonathon

    @Alex… maybe they decided to ride for the podium. I wondered if Frank communicated to Gilbert after Andy was dropped that they wouldn’t challenge if Andy rejoined and they’d work with him to stay clear of the chasing group. Andy would have been swallowed by the chase if Gilbert hadn’t eased up and allowed him to get back on. As soon as he was back on the gap to the chasers stabilized. Pretty sure at 12km’s out they were trying to figure out how to use Gilbert to ensure the two of them were on the podium at the end of the day.

  5. Alex Torres

    @Jonathon: right, that´s fair. IMHO it is just out of context, if such arrangement took place. L-B-L is not your weekend crit or obscure kermesse. Furthermore, they were in 2 and I just feel (again my opinion) they could – and thus should – try harder to put Gilbert on the ropes.

    I´m not criticizing their placement, but rather their effort (or lack thereof). 2nd and 3rd is excellent from pretty much every perspective except that of a race fan who watched the race unfold. And I can´t say the lack of wins from Leopard this season is due to lack of luck or just a coincidence.

    The whole thing felt a little out of place, a little funny for me in some way. The final and the post-race declarations. As I said, that´s my opinion but right now I´m not finding much sympathy and support for the Schlecks anywhere on the net today. I thought I was being critical but it doesn´t look like many race fans warmed up to their efforts at this LBL either. Maybe that says something, maybe not.

    I´m well aware that a dominant win from their part could change all this, and they´re GT riders after all…but… next year maybe? LOL

  6. Robot

    Fränk – Please, Mr. Gilbert, don’t hurt us anymore. I’ve left my little brother at the bus station, and I’m very worried for him.

    Phillipe – Don’t worry little friend. Hold onto my wheel, and I will take you and your brother back to your mommy.

    Fränk – Oh, thank you Mr. Gilbert. My brother and I are so skinny and the wind is blowing so hard.

  7. Jonathon

    @Alex… I must admit that it was tough to watch the km’s click by and NOTHING! Not an acceleration, not a stare down… not a bob and weave… nothing. What is evident is that Bjarne is a maestro DS and that these talents no longer under his care are lacking direction. They may be GT riders, but they did have numbers and to not make a single attack has me wondering what’s going on in LT’s DS mindsets… they even had Jens talking insanity after the race… Jens… Jens I say… I thought he was immune to soft pedaling rhetoric. What I’d pay to sit with Jens and watch a replay of the last 15 km’s and get his commentary as he watches opportunities turn to mist.

    @Robot… Killin’ Me!!! Way too funny!!!

  8. Doug P

    I can’t help but agree with Oscar Friere when he says the TDF is boring, especially when compared to the classics. Teams these days know how to earn sponsors’ money, but the chess gaming of the Grand Tours lacks heart. Tactics are all well and good, but nothing is more exciting than bike racing with passion. Thanks, Philippe, for showing us how it’s done!

    1. Author

      Hi All, thanks for your comments. I have a few thoughts to consider, the first of which came to me as I was dropping off to sleep.

      1) It could be that the Schlecks were shock and awed into almost complete submission by Gilbert’s strength. Andy made the attack that separated the trio, but it was Gilbert leading over the top. How often does a truly strong rider attack on a hill only to be overtaken by another?

      2) I don’t believe there was an agreement, though Andy’s stab at a sprint is exactly what you’d do if you had an agreement. The gap was still tight and I think the Schlecks knew that if they got dropped by Gilbert they could risk losing second and third.

      3) There’s already a fair bit of smack about what a non-performing team LayOpard Trek is. They happen to be the #1 non-performing team in the world. I respect that the poke is how they haven’t won anything big, but they’ve been on the podium at the four Monuments run this season. Neat trick.

      4) In defense of Grand Tours, the drama is located in different places than with a one-day race. They just aren’t the same beast. For a rider like Freire, the Tour will always be boring. For a Schleck, it is an odyssey that can be as crippling between the stages as during them.

  9. grolby

    I think that the crap directed at the Schleck brothers is misplaced. Gilbert is on absolutely dominant form. It’s clear that Andy was basically cooked – he would have been unable to do any damage to Gilbert had he gone on the attack, and both the Schlecks and Gilbert were well aware of that. Frank had more left, but perhaps was awed into quiescence by Gilbert’s obvious dominance. Should they have done more? Perhaps, but they might have lost the gap by what would clearly have been a fruitless effort to dislodge Gilbert.

    Criticisms of the brothers claiming that they have no “edge,” or “killer instinct,” or whatever, makes me laugh. Don’t let their aww-shucks dopey pre-race interview style fool you – they are hard men with a lot of anger in those skinny legs; Andy would not be the highly successful stage racer that he is without it. Frankly, he’s a bit scary, and I think that started coming out a bit in last year’s TdF.

    As for Gilbert: he is the ultimate personification of le tete es les jambs. Power. Panache. Class. He’s an incredible rider, and one who (I must admit!) feels good to root for.

  10. grolby

    I forgot to add – don’t forget that the Schlecks took second and third in one of the hardest and most prestigious classic races on the calendar! Only one rider went better – Gilbert. Leopard-Trek’s record needs to be seen in some perspective. They’ve had trouble getting the wins, but they’ve been the most consistent team this Classics season in terms of results, with podiums in MSR, Flanders, Roubaix and LBL. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

  11. Souleur

    Gilbert is refreshing, without a doubt Padraig, I agree he is cut from the old school mold and it shows in many ways.

    I find myself not laying alot of blame at LayOpards feet, because truthfully there is 2 complete different objectives at play here. PG is in top form and hungry for the monuments, every one of them. Schlecks are both literally training to come to form in july and these races are tid bits if you will. So despite that, the team has done remarkably well IMHO, much better than sky’s year of inception.

    Nonetheless, in the end, Gilbert has been hugely successful. He will return to Belgium a champ and it won’t wear off soon, and like grolby said, he has panache, class and i would add style. He is richly deserving. LBL ride was just mind boggling seeing him man-handle the schlecks, freaking powerful, awesome confidence and having ridden by andy the week before like andy was dragging a brake didn’t hurt that confidence any either.

    The judgement day is pending for the schlecks and until then i pass no judgement and will enjoy their rides to come.

  12. Matt Walsh

    Best write-up I’ve read of all the post-LBL analysis. He does seem to read a race well, he’s not afraid to trust his instincts and he always rides to win. That’s a rider who is a thrill to watch. Matt

  13. michael

    can we please just go ahead and give Gilbert every single rider of the year award now and get it over with?

    short of a GT contender taking both Italy and the TDF this year there is really nothing else that anyone can accomplish this year that will trump what Gilbert has tossed up so far (without counting what is no doubt coming down the pipe in July and September/October).

  14. SinglespeedJarv

    Crankles: yes you are that jaded. I suggest you do some research & find all you can out about Gilbert, inc. The abuse he got from Valv.Piti & Periero at the Dauphine in ’06 or ’07

    The Schlecks were a disgrace. Someone not aiming to win LBL doesn’t get on the podium

    Gilbert is a legend and long may his reign continue.

  15. Johnny Walker Black and Red

    that was a great post until the last paragraph. i guess its up to you whether it spoils you entertainment. if he fails a test, only then will i doubt. thats a pretty tactful way to suggest doping though. why not just not say anything about it? the prose would be just as good without the introduction of the raincloud of doping.

  16. randomactsofcycling

    Wow, thank goodness I am not the only one a little disturbed by the result and puzzled by the LEOPARD/Trek tactics. At least Cancellara has the excuse that EVERYONE was ganging up on him and he had little tam support. Gilbert was clearly the stronger rider at L-B-L but a good DS would have made a big difference in that situation. Going by what we’ve seen this year, Gilbert could have a future as a DS.
    @Alex Torres – exactly how much money did you have on the Schlecks?

    1. Author

      Let’s try to remember that Andy Schleck has previously won L-B-L. The Schlecks wanted a win; to suggest otherwise is to underestimate the will of a PRO.

      Johnny Walker Black: Our sport is ever under a cloud and the cynicism of some readers really doesn’t permit me the luxury of acting like the sport isn’t without issues. If you think the post suggests that I believe Gilbert isn’t clean, you should read it again. Gilbert and Cancellara are my two favorite riders, in part because I do believe them to be clean. Because we have the problem of doping, a rider like Gilbert is to be celebrated doubly.

  17. steve

    Gilbert’s attack with 7k to go made it pretty obvious that he was the only one in that could survive if the attacks started flying. How many attacks did Andy have in him before he popped? If Frank had the legs to attack all he would have done is drop Andy and isolate himself with one of the greatest finishers in the history of bike racing.

    Some days you just have to realize that your best result is going to be 2nd place and if you can take 2nd and 3rd that is better than 2nd and 10th. To suggest that either tactics or desire were lacking on Sunday is pretty harsh. Rather than begrudge the Schlecks I will choose to be amazed at the incredible run Gilbert made at the Ardennes.

  18. grolby

    @randomactsofcycling – how is a good DS (the “weak DS” is Kim Andersen, the same guy who directed Saxo last year – Riis is not in the drivers’ seat for every race!) supposed to do any good when you could clearly have stuck a fork in Andy from 5k out, and Frank didn’t have much more? The riders are not robots. They didn’t have the legs to make the difference, and Nygaard has admitted as much.

    For many of these races, the guy in the car is the same as last year. Leopard Trek has no tactical deficiency worth mentioning; the brothers just didn’t have the legs. Tactics are important, and an understanding of the brainpower that goes into a race is important, but sometimes I think people go from there to way overstating the difference that tactics make when the legs won’t answer the call. Two-on-one is not a complicated tactical situation; there isn’t a DS on the planet who is so braindead as to not know how to work over an isolated rider! Why do we have so many people thinking they know something that the Schlecks and their DS don’t? They didn’t attack because they couldn’t, period.

  19. Robot

    @grolby – Andy Schleck has never won a stage race. He finished second at the Giro and then twice at the Tour, but he’s never won one. Never even a smaller one. The talent is there, no doubt, but the palmares are not.

  20. fausto

    Didn’t the brothers blow an advatage a few years ago where they had the numbers and didn’t close the deal on the climb? Is it tactics of “I want my brother to win, he wants me to win”?

  21. randomactsofcycling

    @grolby – fair call. We know Gilbert was the strongest, as was Cancellara a few weeks ago. I was screaming at Ballan and Hushovdt at Roubaix too.
    Like a lot of fans I wanted to see more ‘visible’ effort, I suppose. I know they are redlining it already but to see one of the Luxo’s stand up and accelerate more than once would have been encouraging. That to me would have been ‘true racing’.

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  23. grolby

    @Robot – that’s true, but wouldn’t you consider three GT podiums at the ripe old age of not-quite-26 to be some degree of success? If he’s still a bridesmaid in a couple of years, I think that becomes a very solid point. Fair enough, for now, though – no stage race wins.

    @randomactsofcycling – I do understand that, though they could not have managed much more than some undignified thrashing. Maybe more significantly, consider this: you’ve got 4k to race, you’re maxed out, and then your DS comes on the radio to tell you, by the way, there’s a chase group only 35 or 40 seconds behind you with some fresh big guns in it. Do you risk blowing up for the sake of putting on a show and lose the podium spot, or do you hang on for grim death and sprint to certain defeat?

    It’s a fair point at this stage to argue that the problem lies with radios, or a points system that excessively rewards consistency and podiums over heroism, but given the on-the-ground reality, it’s a fairly obvious choice.

  24. Lachlan

    Gilbert clearly so strong and as you say smart, but I have to agree with some of the others who think that some of the critics of the brothers Schleck is misplaced. Just as Gilbert sparkled, the brothers made the race come to life to start with. Andy is the kind of tour rider that you don’t really expect to see attacking off the front in the classics… yet there he is. Sure he’s “only” getting podium, sure he ‘only’ manages to drop most of the pack, but we can’t say he isn’t trying, or gave up, or isn’t a great raer, or any of the other such things that seem to be being said.

    I think I read on velonews or somewhere that the Schleck’s were “made fools of”… really? I find it really hard to believe anyone who has themselves raced at any level, or even just tried to sprint up a 10% climb, can watch the end of LBL or AG and think Andy was either crap or not trying.

  25. Touriste-Routier

    Just because we didn’t see any “attacks” doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. I think the Schlecks (Andy in particular) are good at modestly upping the pace and putting in digs, but generally they lack the explosive show of force that most of us think of as an attack.

    There is little doubt that they conceded the victory; it would have been more satisfying overall if they went down in a firery display of attack, counter attack, lose. Even if they were at the limit one can’t help second guessing their tactics.

    While I doubt the result would have been any different, they didn’t necessarily have to lead Gilbert out. If you know you are going to lose, it doesn’t mean you have to race conservatively for the podium. It seems to me that under the current UCI points and media system, 2nd & 3rd mean more than ever before. There was a time when 2nd meant 1st loser, except for worlds & the Olympics.”

    In minor races (and individual stages of stage races), sometimes the podium only features the winner. If that was the case in more races, one can wonder whether one would fight a little harder for the win rather than be satisfied with/by 2nd or 3rd.

    In other words, don’t lead out the favorite, force him to lead, and try to use your numerical advantage against him. If the break gets caught, you are no worse off. Sometimes you have to risk losing in order to win.

  26. Souleur

    all good points

    at this point we can parse it over and over. I agree w/Touriste they should have forced moves, it would have helped, but perhaps not. who will know? I also consider that they should have thrown some punches, counter attacks and kept countering but really…would it have changed a thing? I just don’t see it really happening. Gilbert was superior in all aspects, and Schlecks just didn’t have it. And thats not a knock, thats 2/3 behind the current world strongest man award, so perhaps they are on form for great things later?

  27. Jonathon

    There are some great points that have been made here. I still don’t understand why the bros drug Gilbert to the line. If I’m DS, three km’s out the chase group is closing, which Gilbert wants to avoid. Use this to weaken him and invite him to either keep the three of them clear or take on the crew coming up from behind. Gilbert doesn’t want the chasers in the mix so he puts his nose in the wind and burns his wick a bit while dragging the bros. It was his race to lose and Leopard didn’t use that to their tactical advantage. More than critiquing, I’m scratching my head…

  28. Bigring

    Been a cycling fan, Cat 3 etc…blah blah blah since the early 80’s and pretty much haven’t taken my eyes off of the pro peloton since…what I saw out of Cancellera and Gilbert this classics season restored some of my faith in the worlds greatest sport. Attacking riders with the ability to be relentless and read a race or even attack when it was not going to reap any benefits was truly awesome. Yes, there have been great individual efforts on the one odd tour stage etc..but this was true relentless attacking (see Cancellera) vintage Merckx. Doped or not, makes no difference to me. Epic stuff-

    1. Author

      Everyone: Thanks for keeping the observations coming.

      Grolby, Lachlan and Touriste-Routier: Terrific insight. I agree, though I will say, it seemed from the live feed that we saw each of the Schleck’s attacks. Versus is another matter.

      Sometimes you flat-out get beaten and the Schlecks’ best hope was to keep Andy on the attack and allow Frank to save his matches for one, final attack. Gilbert rode a brave race, taking pulls as necessary and while many less-experienced riders would have feared having two Schlecks present, he had the strategic vision to understand that two Schlecks meant shared work. Allowing Andy’s return when he could clearly have buried him was a stroke of genius. And in a way, their brotherly love worked against them; it was clear from the way they rode that it was Frank’s turn to win L-B-L. The only other strategy they might have employed was to tag-team attack Gilbert and that would have risked wearing them down so that if they didn’t ditch him they’d have nothing to stay away, much less the sprint.

  29. SinglespeedJarv

    Except that inside the last km, they had over 40 seconds on the chasers, even if they’d blown there they wouldn’t have lost their podiums.

    Would just like to point out that in 5th place was Uran of Sky. Many were critical, or at least baffled, by the signing in the winter. Suddenly he looks like he could be one of their best in the hilly races.

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