In 2011, Philippe Gilbert was the world’s best cyclist. At least, according to the UCI rankings. He was a one-day lion, sweeping the Ardennes week and winning 18 races total, tops in the pro peloton. He won the opening Tour de France stage and wore the yellow jersey that season. The guy was unbeatable.
And then the following two seasons, his first and second with BMC Racing, happened. Where there were flowers a season before there was now scorched earth. After an 18-win campaign in 2011, he won four races over the next two seasons. People were harsh in noting the drop-off of the results. One of those wins, of course, was a world championship in the road race in 2012, a vast line on the palmares.
But there was a feeling it was something he had to accomplish to confirm his 2011 season with Omega Pharma-Lotto. When a man wins that much, the level of expectation rolls in like thick fog that doesn’t burn off in the midday sun of second and third and fourth places.
Only the great ones get the weight like this. Tom Boonen comes to mind, though his natural charisma sheds the saliva of a frothing media better. Gilbert seems to take this personally. He comes across how he races his bike: sharp, concentrated, measured and then, pow.
But, on a recent warm evening in Qatar — every evening must be warm in Qatar — he was relaxed. He had a good time trial, which always helps. He laughs a lot. Smiles a lot. Leans in closer to the recorder. Some guys, Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Mark Cavendish come to mind, seem allergic to recorders, as if it’s a beehive waiting to sting him. Which it has. But that’s another matter.
“I had a good winter. It was perfect. It’s what I needed — quiet, nice. I was not happy from my last season, so I really needed to have a break. No skiing or cycling, just focusing on friends and family — total recharge. I’m ready,” Gilbert said. He noted the media and time demands of being world champ as something that held him back a bit training-wise. Tour winners have said the same thing. That said, it’s a good problem to have, isn’t it?
Often times, when we see men like this at this point in their careers — win or else, win or you’re a bust — it’s easy to forget they were at one point bike riders like the rest of us, riding because they loved it and not because there were paychecks with commas. Gilbert lights up at the chance to discuss it.
“I really love it. The feelings I have during the race I don’t think you can find this in many other situations in life, so it’s something very special. The pain, the sacrifice you have to do, the risk, the speed, all together. … It’s very special. It’s hard to explain because I don’t think you can explain if you’ve never done this. … I’d like to explain but it’s not easy,” he said.
“I always liked it. My brother was a cyclist and then from my little town we have a famous climb and so many races crossing the village. Every time it was a holy day from school, almost every week a race coming. Almost every weekend, a lot of people on the bike and the village, it was normal to see a lot of cyclists.”
Then, he became one of them. Which at first, many pros say, is hard to adjust to. A crate of bouquets will change that, though.
“When I turned pro it was like you just had to keep in contact with people and you can enjoy your life making parties and you cannot do that and then at the end now — I mean I’m in a better situation. I can travel the world; I have a good life. It’s hard to make the sacrifice when you’re young. You’re not sure, you can do something, so it’s kind of like … maybe I will miss that?”
Maybe. But probably not. Winning is winning. Which Gilbert hopes to do more of soon. He’ll skip the cobbles this season to focus on the Ardennes races, to get back to his first loves.
“I think this BMC team has a lot of people able to do well in these races, so if I go again, it’s one more guy with more ambition and the thing is I can do different things too, the other guys are more limited. They can only do the Flemish races. The Ardennes is special to me. When you can cross your village with one of the biggest races of the world, that’s something special,” he said. “With Liège. … It’s always the best at the end. It’s not like the Roubaix or Flanders. So many things can happen — flat, bad positioning. Liège is more about power.”
But do we expect a clean sweep again, for only the third time in history? No, that wouldn’t be right, would it? And is it right to remember him simply as the guy who owned the Ardennes?
“I’m glad I did it once, you know, it’s only two guys who have ever done that. … It’s just like four big races in 10 days, it’s amazing. At that time I just took it race by race and won them really nicely,” he said.
Those rides, though, remain a point of reference for fans and for Gilbert himself. He’s thinking of new ways to test himself, though.
“I like different challenges. Next year I’d like to go to Flanders and Roubaix because I like Roubaix, but I was there once in 2007 when it was really warm with a big breakaway and I always say I want to go, but first I want to save my career and there’s lots of guys who have lost everything there. I want to win something before, because then you have less to lose, when you’re older. So I think I can go next year,” he said.
Of course, we’d be remiss to overlook the emergence of another Gilbert-like rider whose ascendance came at the time the Belgian struggled to re-discover his kick. That rider is Cannondale’s Peter Sagan. Surely he’s changed the way a rider like Gilbert targets and prepares for races?
“No,” Gilbert said. “I think he’s really talented but he’s still young and on the big races, like above six hours, I think I still have a chance to beat him. Maybe not in two years because he’s growing so fast, but now I can feel that. When I was younger I was not able, I was not even finishing top 10 unless it was easier races like [Milano-Sanremo].”
The easier races like Sanremo. The 297-kilometer Sanremo, the season’s first major classic. A statement like that is sometimes hard to move on from. Just a passing thought.
Gilbert also said he hopes to watch the Tour this summer closely. From his couch.
“I hope the team don’t ask me to go there,” he said. “I’m hoping to do … Ardennes and then worlds. I’ve never been [to Ponferrada, Spain] but I saw on the map graphic and it looks really hard. When I see up and down, I like it.”
Sagan, while in Oman, said something to the effect of, when a course is up and down, it’s always for him to win, fair or not fair, expectation-wise. Gilbert obviously feels the same. And one has to wonder if this sport of circles upon circles — pedaling, media, and otherwise — is still fun, still the escape it once was.
“It’s less fun, but I still always enjoy to go training and racing, see the team. Of course everyone likes to have success, but sometimes you have no choices,” Gilbert said. Consistency is difficult, and we shouldn’t help but wonder if the continued expectation upon riders like Gilbert or Sagan is actually fair. Gilbert said it’s difficult to be a rider who wins on up-and-down parcours as opposed to sprinting.
“It’s amazing with them because they can be 5 or 6 kilos too much, not train, and still win,” he said. “When you’re a rider like me you have to be 100 percent. Sometimes you’re at 85 or 90 percent and you’re 56th … that’s a big difference. This small percent of condition makes a lot of difference in the results.”
And with gilded-scroll palmares, there comes the question, and the burden, of legacy. Does he give a damn about that?
“I don’t really care what people will say. I’m proud of what I did. I did it for myself and my family,” he said.
But there is a wish-list. There has to be. Otherwise it’s time to sit on the beach and ride in VIP cars a few times a year.
“I’d really like to win the classics. I still have to win Roubaix and Flanders, Sanremo, then I have the complete list. Then [you] have to go back to [Rik] Van Looy to find a rider like Merckx,” Gilbert said. He then floated away from the table in his BMC tracksuit.
Legacy is a brutal mistress, one tended in sweat and chance, the general public perception either a fur coat around her shoulders or a scarlet letter upon her door.
Gilbert will go on courting, though, as will the magazines and the newspapers, some harsher than others. The Ardennes aren’t far off now, and the chance at brilliance waits for no man, Philippe Gilbert included.