There are birthday parties and then, well, there are birthday parties. It's safe to say that at this year’s Tour de France Philippe Gilbert will celebrate one that he will never forget.
Born on July 5, Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) is accustomed to celebrating his birthday on the roads of the Tour rather than at home with his family, and this year celebrates his 40th as the race reaches France for the first time.
Gilbert's perfect late birthday gift would be a win on Wednesday's stage five though; the long-awaited cobblestone stage. After all, he won the iconic Paris-Roubaix over many of these same cobbles just three years ago in 2019. That win was in many ways the crowning achievement of his long and storied career, one in which he won four of cycling’s five Monuments as well as the world championships over an incredible 20 years in the pro ranks.
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Today Gilbert is far and above the most successful active Classics rider, boasting four Amstel Gold Race titles, two Il Lombardia victories as well the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Only Milan-San Remo—the race he seemed suited to win—managed to slip from his grasp. And while the great Italian Classic was a main focus in the final years of his career, these last years have been complicated for Gilbert.
First there were the crashes in the 2018 and 2020 Tours de France, both of which required long recoveries, and then there was Covid. Sure the pandemic was complicated for everyone, but for a veteran like Gilbert it was particularly hard. Gilbert thrived on the crowds throughout his career. For such riders, the lack of fans in the past seasons made it even harder to focus.
The Belgian is clearly savouring the fans at the start of this year’s Tour, and even his own 'Phil-Gil' fans were clearly visible in Denmark.
"I’m just so happy to see the fans again. And to see things back to normal a bit," Gilbert told Rouleur before the start of stage two in this year’s race.
"Racing in the Tour is important for everyone, but I really wanted to be here this year. I haven’t had a good Tour for a long time and I really wanted to come here and finish on a high note."
With the race returning to the northern roads of France on Tuesday, Gilbert will be in his element, especially with the stage five cobbles the following day.
"To have your birthday on the Tour is always special, but to have it on the day [ed. the day before] the Tour races across the cobbles is going to be something else altogether. It was the place of my last great win, so to celebrate it here in the Tour is going to be one I will not forget."
That said, Gilbert is quick to point out that racing the cobbles in the Tour is very different than in Paris-Roubaix. "In Paris-Roubaix, we are racing with specialists," he said, "but when we hit the cobbles in the Tour, we are racing with a lot of riders that don’t really know how to handle their bikes on these roads. It’s very, very nervous. It’s a big, big difference."
For the overall contenders in this year’s Tour, stage five from Lille to Arenberg-Porte du Hainaut promises to be one of the most nerve-wracking stages in this year’s race, as each sector of cobbles will provide a new set of challenges and traps. There are fewer cobbled sectors in the Tour than in Roubaix, but here they are more condensed. Once the race hits the first sector there will be no place to hide, and more importantly, little chance to return from the slightest mishap. The Tour is never won on the cobbles, but is often lost.
Gilbert, however, cannot wait, as he will clearly be in his element. He will also be free to play his own cards. Some cobbled specialists like the Tour’s current yellow jersey Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), may not be able to race his own race as he has two Tour contenders on his team with Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard.
"I will definitely have my chance to ride for myself," Gilbert said. "That is for sure. And I hope to be in the good moves. I am not a threat on the overall classification so hopefully I can be at the front."
For Gilbert, winning on the cobbles in the Tour would be a perfect swansong to his rich career. And it would be one heck of a birthday present.
Little matter the result come Wednesday, Gilbert will continue to race the Tour with vigour, as he knows it will be his last. For many, Gilbert appeared ageless, but he announced earlier this year that the 2022 season would be his last. "I think being a pro for 20 years is a long, long time," he said on his decision to finally bring his career to a close.
"That’s half of my life. I just think it is a good place to stop."