Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and Il Lombardia — the five most prestigious one-day races in cycling.
Win one and you're propelled to star-status. Win all five? Well, that makes you nothing short of a legend.
To this point, Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck are the only men to have completed the set. Saturday 20th March could see a fourth name added to the list: Philippe Gilbert.
Gilbert has been on the edge of the Grand Slam since he won Paris-Roubaix in 2019. Since, he's had one shot at San Remo — he finished 9th last year.
Phil Gilbert in the rainbow jersey, 2013 (Image credit: Offside / LEquipe)
Lotto-Soudal enter the 2021 edition of Milan-San Remo with a competitive squad that isn’t entirely built around Gilbert, though. They will have considerable presence should the race be decided in a mass-sprint with Caleb Ewan and John Degenkolb — Ewan was 2nd in 2018 whereas Degenkolb won in 2015. Then Tim Wellens’ attendance means they have another potential attacker alongside Gilbert.
“I think the best way to win a race now is to go with a strong team,” Gilbert said on the Lotto-Soudal lineup. “When you have a really strong team and you can play different cards, that is when you are strongest. If we choose to go with six helpers and me, if I don’t have the legs we will not win. If it ends in a sprint and John is there, or Caleb, they have more chance than me. The team have to start with the best chance to win.”
Despite being coined ‘the sprinters classic’, Milan-San Remo has been more suited to punchers and classic specialists lately — the most recent pure sprinter to win was Arnaud Démare in 2016. Since then, Michał Kwiatkowski, Vincenzo Nibali, Julian Alaphilippe and Wout Van Aert have won after escaping on the Poggio and winning either solo or from a reduced group. This gives the punchers, Gilbert among them, confidence that they can prevail again this year.
“Everything is possible at San Remo. Of course the sprinters have a chance. I mean, a real sprinter cannot dream about a top-10 in Flanders. This is maybe the only classic where they can get a result and they have a lot of motivation. This is why it's always so close and it's what makes this race so special”.
Image credit: Offside / Pressesports
Gilbert has been battling the odds just to be ready for San Remo. He suffered the second fractured patella of his career last season and his rehabilitation was arduous. “I had a really hard winter with my knee and I was suffering a lot. I really don’t want to use this as an excuse but I am coming back from far away. I am really happy to be competitive because I had some doubts even when I was in January in the camp with the guys because I was still a long way behind them. And now, I really progressed well, it’s nice to see”.
The fact that Gilbert, now 38 years of age, is able to target victory should be celebrated in itself. Picture it: a Gilbert attack on the Poggio accompanied by his now trademark grimace — a spine-tingling thought.
Philippe has had his chances to win here before, though. He finished third at San Remo in 2008 and 2011, but doesn’t look back to those opportunities with anguish. “I don’t have any regrets because I think I got my chances when I was there, and I could not win.
"I have got the maximum out of my capacity there until now. Now, of course, it was nice to see Nibali win with an attack, after that Kwiato, Alaphilippe and even Van Aert. It gives motivation to guys like me.”
Philippe Gilbert has cemented his status as a legend in the world of cycling independent of his result at San Remo this weekend. However, that doesn’t stop him dreaming of achieving the full-set. That's something that we haven't seen for over 40 years. He’s not the only one dreaming, either — it would be one of the most popular victories in recent times.
For now, the San Remo dream lives on as Philippe Gilbert strives for five.
Cover image: Offside / LEquipe