Philippe Gilbert: Classics king and Flanders champion
“It’s the last part of Belgium which is flat. Because if you pass there, it is finished. It’s always up and down.”
If ever a landscape fashioned a rider, it was this one. There are two routes out of the small town of Remouchamps, where Philippe Gilbert grew up. You can either turn your bike into a headwind and vaguely towards Liège, beyond which lies Limburg and then Flanders, with its spit and sawdust language, its flatness and its characteristic hurt. Or you can turn right, into the French-speaking borderlands, hard up against Germany, where the roads start to rise and fall without relenting, picking their paths through damp and dense forests. Remouchamps is that fork in the road and presented Philippe Gilbert with two possible futures.
The first climb that you will hit, if you choose the path to the east, after exactly one kilometre, is the Côte de la Redoute.
It was for many years the defining test of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest and most venerable of cycling’s five Monuments. It’s only a short climb, but it punches up to 20 per cent in places; enough to sink challenges and launch others. No one knows this climb better than Gilbert, the winner of La Doyenne in 2011.
‘Redouter’, the verb, means to fear. There is no better name for a climb than this; the Côte de la Redoute must have loomed large over one young rider as he took the roads he watched his heroes race on. It surely figured in his thinking every day – literally, metaphorically, actually – as he pedalled out of town.
The simple word ‘redoute’ is an arcane thing, overladen with military, historical meaning. The term refers to a makeshift construction; a temporary defensive build. The top of this otherwise anonymous hill was once marked by fortifications and ditches. In the case of this particular redoubt (to coin its literal English translation), the Austrian army had dug in to defend their land in the face of marauding French revolutionary forces. The French won. The redoubt at the top of the hill fell. And, two centuries later, that’s probably why Philippe Gilbert grew up speaking French, rather than German or Dutch.
Daily, a young Gilbert rode out to this fork in the road. More often than not, he turned right, and up the Redoute. That’s what he chose, or maybe what chose him. Everyone has a choice. Almost nobody gets to choose what choice they are faced with.
The different routes represent a schism in the Belgian cycling calendar between the cobbled classics and the Ardennes, the two competing cultures in which few riders in the modern era have managed to thrive.
To win both the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège takes a very special talent. The last Belgian before Gilbert to win both races was Eddy Merckx.
* * *
Nowadays Philippe Gilbert lives on top of another hill far away from his family home in Wallonia. Like the Redoute, this hillside was also heavily fortified against attack. But unlike its Belgian counterpart, it remains in the possession of its longstanding landlords; the heirs to the 13th century Grimaldi dynasty. The Rock of Monaco is what Gilbert calls home.
He moved here nine years ago, when his first big pay cheque came through, and has since acquired a property in just about the most exclusive quarter in the world. Gilbert’s house is one of the pastel-coloured stucco museum pieces that sit on top of Le Rocher; the very seat of Monte Carlo society. Around it wind the kind of Disney-perfect narrow streets that make you stop and think to yourself, do people actually live here? It is a rocky headland that houses the Royal Palace and separates the yacht-strewn Monaco centre from the equally nautically pornographic harbour at Cap d’Ail. Le Rocher affords you a view of both sides.
To these rarified heights, surrounded on all sides by the high-rise condo-barnacled mountainside vistas of lesser millionaires, only the finest of Monaco’s finest are distilled. Gilbert’s one of them. He belongs here. Go to the Wikipedia page for Monaco, and only one cyclist’s name is listed as a “famous resident”, and it isn’t Geraint Thomas.
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When we meet him on a soft December morning, he could hardly seem more contented. Sitting behind the till of his eponymous bike shop (‘The Bike Shop, by Philippe Gilbert’) in one of the most select boutique streets in the principality, he is chatting amiably with his staff, nipping at an inevitable cyclist’s espresso, already kitted out for his training ride.
The blue Quick Step jersey looks well on him, even if it still necessitates a minor mental adjustment; removing him from the red and black of BMC, and the similar colours of his national champion’s kits. He smiles broadly, and often, pushing back the peak of his casquette, planted for comfort beneath a bespoke helmet whose subtle black, red and yellow flashes serve as a reminder of his multiple Belgian titles. He’s the man this team always wanted, and now, without Tom Boonen to fly the flag, they’ve finally snagged him.
Gilbert and Quick Step is as good a fit as there is in cycling. It’s as if he has never worn any other colours, which of course could not be further from the truth. But that story was still to come. Business first.
We start to talk about his training ride, and our schedule for the day. He goes into great detail about the route, suggesting points where we could meet; vistas which might offer Marshall a good spot for a photo. It dawns on us that he’s gone out of his way to sort out a bespoke ride that would work for us.
“How long do you think it will take you from here to the top of the col?” I ask him, thinking about fetching the car and getting driving. “Roughly…”
“One hour and ten minutes.” He doesn’t even hesitate.
A decade of climbing these mountains sits deep in his subconscious. A few hours later, driving up in an opposite direction to him over Col de Braus, we will see him again, cresting the beautiful climb whose summit is marked by a memorial to René Vietto, the eight-time stage winner on the Tour de France either side of the Second World War. Gilbert lifts his arms in the air in mock celebration, as he spins up to the top in the company of Trek-Segafredo rider Fabio Felline, about five minutes after the LottoNL-Jumbo pair of Steven Kruijswijk and Primoz Roglic have ridden over together. I glimpse a Team Wiggins rider flash past on the descent. This is Monaco’s racing community, taking to the hills as they do every day. But there’s no doubt which one of them is the king of the castle. On the way down, Felline stops to get a selfie with Gilbert.
Back in the city, I watch as he leaves the smooth, marble-floored shop. He clips in, bunny-hops out of the front door, and onto the Monaco streets, humming with Vespas, and jangling with jewellery. I glance up at a framed portrait of Monaco’s royal couple.
It hangs, appropriately enough, above the till.
When he won the first stage of the 2011 Tour de France, and with that his first yellow jersey, he was contacted by the Prince, and invited round. The day of Gilbert’s triumph, July 2, happened to coincide with the marriage of Prince Albert II and Charlene Wittstock. Albert demanded a signed yellow jersey from one of his most famous neighbours as a wedding present, and he got one because he’s a prince.
Monaco is a bit feudal, in a weird way. Everyone has their place, even Philippe Gilbert.
* * *
It’s quite a distance he’s travelled to reach such heights. This isn’t exactly a tale of rags to riches, but it was certainly an austere upbringing in the Ardennes. Philippe’s father Jean Gilbert, one of six children raised by his widowed mother (her husband died young) was sent out from childhood to earn a living, and told explicitly that sport was a frivolous waste of time and effort. He, in turn, grafted hard throughout his adult life to support his family, and to allow his children the opportunities he had been denied.
“It was another time, you know? My father was born in 1945,” he says.
Gilbert has just finished a four-hour training ride, eaten, showered and changed clothes. We have chosen a table at the back of what passes for an ordinary café by Monaco’s standards, close to the Prince’s Palace. He asks me to order a “caffè lungo”, and I want double espresso. When I collect them, they look identical, which sends me into a tailspin of worry, carrying the cups over to our table. I know the pitfalls of getting coffee wrong with pro riders. But, thankfully, Gilbert barely notices. He’s talking about his childhood.
“My father would have loved to become a cyclist, but he wasn’t able to.” Gilbert reflects on his dad’s pride at his sons’ achievements. His older brother Christian was a good amateur, who never quite had the mental resolve to make it professionally. But he showed the way to his two younger brothers, one of whom had started to display an unstoppable talent.
Young Philippe would go on to fulfill his father’s dream. “That’s why he gave us so many opportunities and so much support, because he was frustrated for himself, you know? We didn’t have a lot of money. But everything we had went into this.”
Gilbert was a shy kid who hardly caught the eye at school. He coasted through his lessons, just about doing enough to pass through anonymously. “I just wanted to be safe. It was enough to get my diploma, but I wasn’t motivated. I just didn’t have it. You are what you are, and I did what I did. And that’s it.”
But at home, he could be boisterous, fighting his younger brother Jérome constantly. Sometimes he’d win, sometimes he’d lose. Once he pushed him through a glass door. “It was just a normal fight, you know? Two boys together. But he fell through and he was all open. I think he needed 20 or 30 stitches in his face…” Gilbert rocks his head back and roars with laughter at this memory.
But, as the years rolled on, it was clear that young Philippe was going to outgrow Remouchamps and the family home.
“You know when you win everything in your village, that’s one thing. And then you win everything in your country, that’s another thing. And you go to other countries and you still win, you think, oh! Maybe I have a chance. Maybe I have something.”
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He had set his heart on one thing only. He wanted to emulate the riders he watched on TV, recording their races and re-watching them obsessively: Johan Museeuw, Michele Bartoli, Michael Boogerd, Davide Rebellin. He admired their attacking, aggressive natures.
“I was always dreaming of the Classics,” he tells me.
I tell him that I think that’s the most Belgian thing anyone has ever said to me.
Again, that easy fulsome laugh.
“I know, I know. That’s because it’s true,” he adds, truthfully.
* * *
To watch Gilbert race his bike is to watch an actual bike race.
At 35, (he’ll turn 36 two days before the next Tour de France gets underway), he is that rare breed of rider, who still quite deliberately flouts the conservative trends of the modern era. I know, from personal experience in the ITV commentary box, what Gilbert adds to the spectacle, because when he goes, both my co-commentator David Millar and I shuffle instinctively forward in our seats, our pupils widen a fraction, our voices rise a semi-tone in pitch, and the game is on. Millar doesn’t pretend about such things. They matter to him.
An attack with Gilbert in it is not an attack like any other. His presence ignites a situation, like someone squirting paraffin onto a smouldering fire. He teases out the other big players. If Gilbert’s in the break, then it’s a break worth getting in. You can reel off the names of the riders who will hit out to join him: Boasson Hagen, Cummings, Van Avermaet, Sagan, De Gendt…That’s the kind of company he keeps.
The pure racing instinct has always been there in his make up, and the impatience, too. For six years he learned his trade at FDJ, choosing a French team in part to get away from the weight of expectation placed on his young shoulders by the Belgian media. “I wanted to avoid the press. They can be pretty hard, and it’s hard for a young rider,” Gilbert says.
Although his signature was coveted by both Lotto and Quick Step, it was FDJ’s Marc Madiot who landed the rider. Madiot had been impressed by a typically swashbuckling performance from a young Gilbert at the under-23 race La Côte Picarde.
Gilbert had accidentally attacked from the start, ripping the race to pieces in a strong crosswind without even intending to. “I think I was just going too fast,” he recalls with typical understatement. “I was away with four guys, and we just kept riding for 120 kilometres.” Inevitably, he was the last rider to be reeled in. “Then I was alone, and they caught me with six kilometres to go on the second to last climb. Then I attacked again on the last climb, and they caught me again. And then I sprinted to ninth place in the bunch. I did a big, big day.”
Gilbert developed quickly at FDJ. He particularly bonded with the Australian contingent of Brad McGee and Baden Cooke. “I learned a lot from these guys. They shared a lot with us young ones.” Some of what he learned has stuck with him; in particular a point Gilbert repeatedly makes to me about making it to the finish. “That’s how you get better. When you work hard, and you hold on, and you finish with the bunch, you get so much better.” You have to be involved.
It’s a principle that would bring him ever closer to his ultimate ambition, the World Championships in 2012. On previous attempts to win the rainbow jersey, he can recall how he had repeatedly “seen” the winner, by which he means more than just “seeing”. He means that he had been there, sensed the size of the thing, not far from the wheel of the rider who won. He’d heard the crowd, felt the roar, taken in the sight of the arms thrown into the air in victory. He’d almost smelt it. That’s how you prepare. That simple process of being there in the mix, right to the end, gave him the belief that, one day, it would be his turn.
Being there was everything in bike racing for Gilbert, right from the very start. One of his fondest and earliest memories of competing at the sharp end of a big bike race was in his first ever Dauphiné in 2003. He was the penultimate lead-out man for Baden Cooke. With just over one kilometre to go he hit the front of the bunch. “I was going full gas. Then I heard a big noise. There was a big crash behind with Cookey, but Brad [McGee] was still there. So he said, ‘Keep going!’ and I stayed on the front until about three hundred metres. He finished second and I was sixth. I was happy! It was my first result in a big race like this.”
But, if truth be told, he was also a little bit miscast in a team which had a certain approach, and it didn’t chime with his desires. His race programme filled with week-long stage races, in which he had a defined but limited role, as the team tried to work for some hard to achieve, yet slightly underwhelming, overall accolade. “I never had the head for this. To fight every day for maybe something? This is too hard, you know.
“I was never interested in racing for the GC. You don’t really race to win, you know? You race more to not lose. It’s another thing. You can end up doing what Froome did [on the 2017 Tour]; you win the GC, but you don’t win a stage. This is not nice. Where is the fun in this? This is really what I hate in cycling.”
He plants his coffee cup down, drained. He’s warming to the subject.
* * *
In 2009, the departures of both Robbie McEwen and two-time Flanders and Roubaix winner Peter Van Petegem meant that the Belgian Lotto team came back in for the rising star in FDJ’s ranks. Gilbert’s growing haul of wins already included two victories in Omloop Het Volk and an edition of Paris-Tours in a spontaneous tactical masterclass, in which Gilbert’s team-mate Mickaël Delage played a not insignificant part, attacking and then waiting for Gilbert’s counter. He can recall how the race unfolded with total clarity. “It’s always the best to win like this, with a plan that works.”
Such impressive results made him indispensable to Lotto’s future cause, as they looked for a response to the ever-growing palmarès of Tom Boonen, two years Gilbert’s senior, and riding for their Belgian rivals, Quick Step. The French-speaking Gilbert was to provide for them the best possible response to the dominance of the Flemish superstar, Boonen.
“They were searching for a new… rider.” Gilbert hesitates as he remembers. But not just a new rider. “A new winner. So I was really on time. I was 27 years old, so I was experienced. I had everything, and they gave me the team. It was time to step up.”
At the same time he finally left Belgium and moved to Monaco, at first renting an apartment at the Jardin Exotique, with a view over the harbour. It was the clearest statement of intent. Gilbert did not expect to fail.
Now the main man, he hit the ground running, finishing his first ‘homecoming’ season with a simply devastating run of form. In the space of just nine days, he won four races in two countries; the Copa Sabatini, Paris-Tours, Gran Piemonte and his first monument, Il Lombardia.
“It was crazy. I drove the three and a half hours to Italy on my own. The next day I won Sabatini, and drove back. Two days later I won Paris-Tours, and flew back the next day. Then I drove myself back to Piemonte, won that and then won Lombardia and drove home again. It was so intense. And winning such completely different races! A semi-classic for the sprinters and a Monument for the climbers. Crazy.”
That broke the seal. In 2010, he won Amstel Gold and Il Lombardia for a second consecutive year. Then came the big one. 2011 yielded victories in Amstel Gold, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the space of seven days. After which, he started to think about July.
“As soon as I had won Liège, I just started training for stage one of the Tour. Just this.”
It was the first of the Tour routes to have Christian Prudhomme’s penchant for the unpredictable written all over it, and offered a puncheur’s chance to win the yellow jersey on the opening day’s climb to the finish line. It was, in effect, tailor-made for Gilbert; perhaps not coincidentally.
“There was a big relationship between ASO and the Province of Liège. I think this was a part of it. It was a big chance for me.”
It nearly went wrong. With a few kilometres left, in a nervy, crash-strewn finale, Gilbert’s team seemed to have been scattered to the winds. But, as he recalls, miraculously, they all came together again.
“I was strong, I knew I was ready. But it was stress from the start. I knew I could lose everything. And I started to panic. I knew I had the legs to win, but without a team for the final, I couldn’t do it. Then, in one moment, everyone was coming together again. Two kilometres to go. I saw Greipel coming, Sieberg, Roelandts, Vanendert. All lined up, without speaking. From this moment, I knew: now we’re safe.”
He turned the Tour to his advantage. He turned it into a one-day race. Standing on the podium, dressed in yellow, he knew that the rest of the race would be whatever it wanted to be. “We knew if we smashed this one, the Tour was done.”
He was one of the most prized assets in the whole cycling world. “Out of the 21 top teams, 18 made me an offer.” The following year, he moved to BMC; “a hard choice, between them and Quick Step.”
But life got difficult, suddenly. “I started to pay for how hard I had gone in 2011.” Where the previous year he had been winning, now he found himself settling for a string of podium places. “Third place is normally okay, but if you won the race last year, it means nothing.”
Then, late on in the calendar, his form returned when he most needed it. First there was an upturn in his performances at the Vuelta, followed by the perfect race on the perfect stage. He jumped the field in Valkenburg to become world champion.
“I had done so many World Championships without winning. I saw the winner a few times. You’re still pedalling, and you see the winner cross the line.” This time, he had no one else to look at. The field were all stretched out behind him, unable to catch the man in the blue kit with Belgian bands.
A rueful glance at his long empty coffee cup, and then a smile. This time it’s the smile of someone who remembers having nothing left to prove. I put it to him that this win must have been more like relief than delight; a completed journey.
“Yeah, yeah.” He nods in affirmation. “The big moment. Yeah. This rainbow jersey. It had always been so big in my eyes. It’s different.”
Four years at BMC yielded a reasonable return: Grand Tour stage wins, another Amstel Gold. Plenty of other results besides. But the surge tide success that had brought him there slowly flattened to something more proportionate. Peter Sagan’s star continued to rise, but Gilbert stuttered, finding it hard to hold onto the form of 2011 and 2012.
Then came the sneers and suspicious swipes. After such miraculous years, how to explain the sudden, albeit relative, lack of form? There were accusations, some of which made the Belgian newspapers, when a former Lotto team-mate, who remained anonymous, claimed that Gilbert had regularly abused cortisone. Gilbert denied it furiously.
“I’ve always done my job in a serious manner and in the best way possible,” he said at the time of the allegations. “I won big races both before and after my years at Lotto, and for the most part in the same fashion. I hope that says enough about it.”
But still, it only masked the feeling that Philippe Gilbert, heading into his thirties, looked like he was starting to fade.
Then, in 2016, he picked up the phone. On the other end, when he finally answered, was Quick Step’s autocratic boss (or “mafia boss”, in Gilbert’s assessment), Patrick Lefevere. “He had not contacted me since I went to BMC. He couldn’t understand why I had joined them. So, he was really surprised. But it was easy. We got the deal done pretty quickly.”
Back with a Belgian team, on a bus littered with big egos and attacking spirits, Gilbert tapped immediately back into the spirit of racing that had first attracted him to the sport.
“At BMC they invested in the Classics, but their spirit was more for stage races. But they never had a winner; always fourth, fifth or third. So we were racing, and sacrificing ourselves and working hard. But never to win. At the end you wonder why you are doing it.”
In stark contrast to the regimented ranks of BMC, Gilbert had started to gaze wistfully at the team he could have joined instead.
“I saw Quick Step winning, being a group, friends, really aggressive…
“For me, Quick Step has always been a problem in a race. Always. All my life, Quick Step has been a problem. So I started thinking, if they’re really the problem, then I have to join them.”
He had scarcely been with them for four months, before he landed arguably the greatest win of his career, and, for many people, one of the most extraordinary solo rides in recent history. With 55 kilometres to race at last year’s Tour of Flanders, he simply rode away on the Oude Kwaremont. “I didn’t attack, I just pulled,” he says.
But no one caught him. You don’t win Flanders like that. Except that’s exactly what he did, letting off the gas a little within the final seven kilometres when he started to sweat and feel alarmingly cold: the signs of a hunger knock. Then he went impossibly hard again. Forty-eight kilometres per hour into a headwind. He saw the gap open up again, and he knew then that he’d cracked the rest of the race. At the finish, in the Belgian champion’s jersey, he walked across the line holding his bike aloft.
Search for the image online and remind yourself. Then imagine what that moment must have contained for a son of Wallonia, from the far side of Belgium, whose greatest days in the saddle had been in the Ardennes, to have crossed the divide and finally landed the big one. All along the finish line, the yellow Flandrian flags flanked the course in acknowledgment of a special racer.
Much of his victory, interestingly, he puts down to the fact that he had no radio signal. His team car was caught out of range behind the third group. The only information he was working with was the occasional appearance of the blackboard by his side, indicating the time gap. But to whom? How big a group? He was riding blind. He raced on feel. He is predisposed to ignore data, anyway. When he was at BMC, he started to use power meters for the first time. He professes to total ignorance of their value. Even now, he couldn’t care less what the wattage reading tells him.
“And now, do you care?” I ask him whether it’s possible to be a pro in 2017 without taking on board this information. “Do you have to care?”
“No. I don’t care. It’s just numbers. I think it’s stupid. I just look to see if I’m faster than someone else.”
This is a constant Gilbert refrain. He trusts his eyes above everything else.
“I watch a lot of races on TV. You don’t see many riders looking around. This is their first mistake. You always have to know what the situation is. A lot of riders just look ahead. There’s not much to see. Everything’s behind you. When I see riders like this, I think they’re so stupid. Everything is behind you. You have to deal with everything that is behind you. Not in front of you. You have to look at the guys, how many are there, what do they look like, how many from the same team. Analyse them.”
But no radio, and 55 kilometres to race, solo? That is a whole different matter.
At the Paterberg climb, he had 35 seconds. “I asked on the radio: What shall I do? They didn’t answer me. They didn’t hear me. I had no idea what was happening behind.”
Perhaps it was a good thing that you had no radio, I suggest.
“Yeah, maybe,” Gilbert concedes. “Maybe they’d have told me to stop.”
Whether he’d have obeyed their instructions is another matter altogether. He was on his own at the front of the biggest race in the Belgian calendar. Perhaps this is a closing chapter in his career. But the return to his home country has been stunningly vindicated. If his sun is burning out, then this is the red giant phase.
I doubt he’d have stopped.
* * *
It has grown dark outside. Gilbert’s phone rings. It’s his wife, Patricia, gently reminding him that he has to walk down off The Rock to pick up his boys from school.
We delay him one final time so that Marshall can grab a few shots of him by the stone archway that leads to the square outside the Palace, where Monaco’s royal guard put on a show for the tourists, marching with crisp precision and twirling their rifles.
“Here on The Rock, it’s like a village. People live here and stay here forever. I know everyone here.
“I’m the only cyclist living on The Rock, you know,” he declares, proudly. Then he looks momentarily uncertain. “Cameron Wurf once rented an apartment up here for a few months, but…”
“You made sure you got rid of him?”
“Yeah, exactly,” Gilbert laughs loudly, takes off his cap, ruffles his hair and then plants it again. “He had to go.”
Then, after well-wishing and extreme concern on his part that we will find our way back to the subterranean car park where we have left our car, he finally strides off into the night. I watch him set off, loping down this very particular hill, glancing across to the east, where the lights from a thousand apartments, set out against the hillside to form a brutal amphitheatre, gaze down on the over-stuffed harbour. Along the coast, in the dusky distance, the mountains catch the very last of the almost-warm reflected light from a winter Mediterranean sunset. The sea is frighteningly, unreally blue.
I watch him go.
A story that started a long time ago at the foot of La Redoute shows no sign of coming to a close just yet. Philippe Gilbert’s still racing.
From issue 18.1 of Rouleur
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