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Already a winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia, new Tour of Flanders champion Philippe Gilbert is setting his sights very high indeed: basking in the glow of his latest victory, he has confirmed a long-standing goal is still a target. Namely, taking all five of cycling’s Monuments.
Gilbert’s victory in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen on Sunday ticked off the third of those five races, and inched him closer to a very select group. Thus far in history, only three riders have taken the quintuple: Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck.
Each are legends of the sport, each are Belgian, and Gilbert wants to join them.
“That has always been a dream,” he confirmed at the post Flanders press conference in Oudenaarde. “I was always speaking about this for a long time now, about winning all the monuments.
“I was getting two times third here in Flanders, two times third in San Remo. Finally I won today in Flanders. I can make a cross on this one, it is done. Now I still have two to make, you know. Roubaix and San Remo.
“But the good thing it is not my last year.”
Gilbert has had a couple of quieter seasons, with these leading to his departure from the BMC Racing Team and his decision to sign with the QuickStep Floors squad. The inked deal reportedly saw him settle for a relatively low base salary, but one that has big win bonuses.
This far this year, that’s certainly worked out well for him.
Paris-Roubaix is next Sunday and he could in theory seek to continue his momentum into that event. However at this point in time he’s not committing to the French event.
At least not yet.
“I don’t know [if I will ride],” he stated. “Normally we were supposed to decide this tonight because I didn’t want to think about this. So I said to the team let’s decide after the race.
“But I don’t know…I am so happy tonight, I don’t know. It is hard to say what to do. We will talk about it later today and then we will see.”
Should he indeed opt for Roubaix, he admits he isn’t sure how the particular demands of the event will suit him. He was 52nd in 2007, and hasn’t lined out since. Can a rider with his attributes thrive on flat cobbles?
“I don’t know. The last time I did it was ten years ago. That is the only time. I don’t really have experience in this race.”
Still, on the basis of his display on Sunday, it seems possible he could play a major part.
Would it be enough to win? We could find out in seven days time.
‘I went, but it was a long way…’
As Gilbert said, though, right now he prefers to soak up what he did in Flanders. There is certainly plenty to savour. His move began with over 50 kilometres to go, saw him open a gap, and then work hard to maintain it as the challenge of others faltered behind.
Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) and Sky’s Luke Rowe crashed on the descent off the Kwaremont. Gilbert’s teammate Tom Boonen had bike problems on the Taiienberg and then experienced issues with his spare machine. This forced him to wait even longer and he ultimately trailed in a distant 37th, three minutes 30 seconds back.
World champion Peter Sagan, Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen (AG2R) subsequently hit the deck on the Kwaremont, effectively ending their challenges.
And while Van Avermaet was able to quickly get going again, his frantic chasing with Dylan Van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac) still left them 29 seconds adrift at the finish.
They will rue what might have been, but that shouldn’t detract from the audacious nature of Gilbert’s move.
“When we were in the group, we decided with Trentin and Boonen to speed up again on the Kwaremont,” he said, explaining the circumstances. “Tom just came full gas, even on the asphalt before the cobbles. He really did a big, big pull, then he did the first part and then I was taking over.
“I was shifting to the big chainring when it was flatter. Then after this little chicane there in the village, I was looking back and I saw that I had a little gap. I didn’t know what to do, you know. So I stayed at my speed and then at the end of the cobbles I looked back and I saw them already pretty far back.”
With well over an hour of racing left ahead, it was a big gamble. Gilbert had no idea then that many of his rivals would experience bad luck, something which undoubtedly helped his chances.
Because of that, the decision to press on was a courageous one.
“I was asking [the team management] what can I do and then they said just go,” he explained. “I went, but it was a long way. I was trying to go fast but not too crazy, because I knew it was a long effort to deal with. I was trying to do my best because I knew the last ten, 15 kilometres would be really hard.
“I was scared of having a hunger flat or something like that. I knew from this moment that I didn’t really have time to eat much. I had some gels from the car…that is the only thing I could eat, and also the drinks. But there is not much energy in the drinks. I knew it was not easy to deal with this big effort.”
Pulling off such a move was perhaps the main reason behind his gesture at the finish. Right before the line he wheeled to a halt, dismounted and raised his bike high above his head.
Such a display earned Italian rider Filippo Simeoni a UCI fine back in 2001 [he did it as a gesture of solidarity for the September 11 victims]. Times have changed, the UCI has relaxed somewhat, and Gilbert won’t incur the same punishment.
After his big show out on the road, he wanted to give another right at the finish line.
“With two kilometres to go I was not sure to resist the guys behind as they were coming back,” he said. “So I was really focussing on my effort until almost the last kilometre. Then there is this long straight line and you can see the finish at the end. I looked back and saw that I had still a nice gap. So I said I would do something special.
“I am very happy about the material [his equipment]. I think this is also part of the victory. I was thinking this would be a nice picture with the bike in the air and the jersey stretched like that. It is something special.”
In fact, asked if it was the biggest physical performance of his career, he inferred it might well be.
“Yeah, I went really deep today. I think I was doing a nice effort because I didn’t lose so much power at the end. I think I dealt really well with my power. I think I can be really proud of this.”
Keeping the ball rolling until the Ardennes Classics?
In terms of celebration, victory in Flanders will also mean a lot to others. Gilbert’s fans will of course relish what they saw on Sunday. So too his family and friends.
But another group will be equally celebratory: his QuickStep Floors team.
Being a Belgian squad which concentrates largely on the Spring Classics, the Tour of Flanders is a very big deal for the team. It hasn’t won Flanders since 2012 – the year when Boonen took his third victory. The win also comes after frustration in several recent races, making the success all the sweeter.
Given his strong start to the season, the his move from the BMC Racing Team to QuickStep Floors is one which seems to have worked out well.
Gilbert readily accepted the importance of the team’s help in winning the race, saying that the other riders did a lot of work to make it possible. “I know that without them I would never have won today. So I am really thankful to them. I think everyone deserves to be on the podium today.”
So, at what point in time did he feel that QuickStep could be a good fit?
“I asked myself to go to this team,” he said, referring back to last season. “I always saw these really riding as a team and being strong on all the courses. You can see them being successful in the sprint, time trials, they were three times world champion, on the Classics, the stage races. They always compete to win and that is what I like.
“When you sign for this team, you know you are always focussed. In De Panne, I won a stage and then we were focussing on the sprint for Kittel.
“It is always hard work to go full gas, but it is always nice because you always focus. You know you work for something.”
Both Gilbert and team manager Patrick Lefevere will hope that the Flanders success will spur the riders on to even more success.
Victory can be addictive. It can also generate confidence while reducing pressure at the same time.
If things work out for the squad, it will continue in the same manner in Scheldeprijs on Wednesday, Paris-Roubaix next Sunday and beyond.
Whether or not he ultimately decides to do this year’s Roubaix, Gilbert said that he hasn’t ruled out trying to prolong his own momentum until Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Few riders have succeed in pulling off that particular double, but he’s keeping an open mind.
“It is hard. I know I am going well for the moment. I don’t know if I can…you know, Liège is now becoming more and more for the climbers. Everyone is really waiting. It is only five kilometres racing at the end, everyone waits and waits and waits. You see now it is like 80 guys together at the bottom of Saint Nicolas.
“When I won, it was because of the Schlecks. They decided to go already full gas from 15 kilometres to go, and this makes a difference.”
However, notwithstanding the uncertainty, he seems intrigued by the idea.
“It is still a long way to Liège, but it is possible…”