The weekly spin: With Roubaix victory, Gilbert’s transformation is complete

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Philippe Gilbert is not the same rider he once was. And for his Deceuninck-Quick-Step team, that is a very good thing.

Gilbert, 36, added a Paris-Roubaix victory to his impressive palmares Sunday, a fifth Monument victory to add to wins at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Il Lombardia, which he’s won twice.

Once the king of the uphill sprint finish, Gilbert is now a king of the cobblestones, having won both cobblestone Monuments in the span of two years and one week.

The rider from the Walloon city of Verviers, near Liège, outsprinted German Nils Politt (Katusha) in the Roubaix velodrome to take his first victory at the Queen of the Classics, 13 seconds ahead of teammate Yves Lampaert.

Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-Quick Step) won his first Paris-Roubaix and is now one Milan-San Remo victory away from having won all five Monument classics.

Belgian Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First) was fourth, 40 seconds off the winning time, while defending champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) was fifth, just behind Vanmarcke.

For Gilbert it was perhaps the crowning moment of a transformation that began several years ago, as he reconstructed himself from winner of Il Lombardia, a fall classic traversing the hills around Lake Como, and then all three races of Ardennes Week, to winner of Paris-Roubaix, a flat, rough-and-tumble spring classic barreling across the cobblestones of Northern France.

It was Gilbert’s second Monument victory since joining Quick-Step in 2017; he’s now one of the few riders to have won both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Both victories came relatively late in his career, as part of the sport’s premier cobblestone classics squad.

With Sunday’s win, Quick-Step came through on what they’d internally referred to as “Project Roubaix,” the team’s ambitious goal to deliver Gilbert to victory at Roubaix in only his third start at the race, and his first time cracking the top 10.

“I feel great pride today,” said Gilbert, who broke into tears the moment after he crossed the line. “When I decided to take on this challenge three years ago, many people told me the cobbles weren’t for me. Now I’ve won the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I was able to transform my qualities as a puncheur. Now, I’m a different rider and I’m very happy to have done it.”

The transformation

Professional since 2003, Gilbert has only ridden for four teams in his 17-year career. He spent six seasons on the French Française des Jeux squad before jumping over to Omega Pharma-Lotto in 2009.

His career-defining season came in 2011, when he was the top-ranked rider in the world, which led him to sign a lucrative contract with the big-budget BMC Racing Team in 2012. He spent five years with BMC that were mediocre by his 2011 standard before signing a one-year contract with Quick-Step for 2017. And that’s when things all started to turn around.

Early in his career, Gilbert took wins at one-day races like Omloop Het Volk (now Omloop Het Nieuwsblad) and Paris-Tours, often soloing to victory or winning a reduced sprint finish. His first podium appearance at a Monument came in 2008, when he placed third at Milan-San Remo, second in the bunch sprint behind Filippo Pozzato after Fabian Cancellara soloed to victory.

At the 2009 Paris-Tours, Gilbert outfoxed Tom Boonen in a two-up sprint after famously dropping his own young teammate, Greg Van Avermaet, from the winning move in the final 6km. It was the beginning of an acrimonious relationship between Gilbert and Van Avermaet — one a flamboyant star from French-speaking Wallonnie living in Monaco, the other a soft-spoken, salt-of-the-earth Flandrian — that would resume once they were reunited at BMC Racing in 2012.

Philippe Gilbert (Silence-Lotto) got the better of Tom Boonen (Quick Step) at the 2009 Paris-Tours.

“[Van Avermaet] always conveyed a kind of restrained anger towards me,” Gilbert told newspaper Het Nieuwsblad in 2017. “I never really understood why. Voilà, it’s a fact. If you do not like someone, it can also serve as motivation. I never had the same feeling. I envy him if anything. His supporters have sometimes been very hard on me. But I don’t want to cause problems. The respect between Greg and me is mutual.”

The 2009 season also saw Gilbert on the podium at the Tour of Flanders, in early April, and at Lombardia, in mid-October; he won Lombardia in a two-up sprint ahead of Samuel Sanchez, and repeated the following year, soloing to victory ahead of Michele Scarponi at the 2010 edition.

That 2010 season also saw Gilbert take the first of what would amount to four victories at Amstel Gold Race. He had become one of the most fearsome classics riders in the sport.

But the best was yet to come. Gilbert was the rider of reference in 2011, winning all three Ardennes Classics — Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège — as well as Strade Bianche, Brabantse Pijl, the Belgian national road title, the opening stage of the Tour de France, Clasica San Sebastian, GP Quebec, and the Tour of Belgium. He won 18 races and easily finished on top of the UCI World Tour individual rankings.

By the standard set in his 2011 season, to call Gilbert’s 2012 and 2013 seasons disappointing would be an understatement. He won just three races in 2012, two stages at the Vuelta a España and the world championship, which finished on his beloved Cauberg climb, used as a springboard to victory at the Amstel Gold Race. His season as world champion delivered just one victory, a Vuelta stage win weeks before he surrendered the rainbow jersey.

The sum total for the two seasons that followed his phenomenal 18-win 2011 season was just four victories. One was a world championship, but still.

Philippe Gilbert won only one race in 2013, during his season in the rainbow jersey.

In 2013, Gilbert faced accusations in a Dutch newspaper of using cortisone for performance while at Lotto from 2009 to 2011, citing an anonymous former Lotto teammate who said that Gilbert received cortisone from Lotto doctor Jan Mathieu. “Gilbert often raced on cortisone and I know that from Jan Mathieu himself. I received cortisone from Mathieu, supposedly on prescription and he told me that he did the same thing with Gilbert,” the source told NRC Handelsblad.

At the time, cortisone was banned in competition, but was allowed for therapeutic use out of competition; the anonymous rider claimed that Mathieu prescribed cortisone for non-existent injuries. Gilbert responded to the allegations in writing, saying, “I’ve always done my job in a serious manner and in the best way possible. 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.”

Gilbert had a few marquee results in his final three seasons at BMC — another Amstel Gold win in 2014, a pair of Giro d’Italia stage wins in 2015, a Belgian national title in 2016 — but he was no longer the team’s undisputed classics leader. That role that went to Van Avermaet after he became a winner of Omloop, Tour de France stages, and ultimately the Olympic gold medal. Gilbert could contend at the Ardennes Classics, but Van Avermaet was the team’s leader across the cobblestones.

Those team leadership issues, as well as lacklustre results, played an integral role in Gilbert signing a one-year contract with Quick-Step at the end of 2016.

“One day Philippe called me and said, ‘I want to race for you,’” Quick-Step manager Patrick Lefevere said last year. “I replied that it would be a short negotiation — ‘I don’t have money to pay you.’ He said it wasn’t a question of money but of ambition. He wanted to win Flanders, Roubaix, and San Remo, and he said we were the only team who could help him win them.”

By the next morning, they’d worked out a deal. “It was the shortest and most sincere negotiation of my career,” Lefevere added.

To prepare for Roubaix, Gilbert moved away from working on his explosive power and top-end speed, and instead he focused on pure power output.

“The weight is same, it’s more of a difference in the training,” Gilbert said at the outset of the 2018 season. “[Roubaix is] all about power.”

Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert had a complicated relationship during their time together as teammates at BMC Racing.

The rivalry with Van Avermaet took on a new dimension in 2017 after Van Avermaet won E3 Harelbeke and Gilbert placed second at Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, and then won the Three Days of De Panne. Along with Sagan, they were the two big favorites heading into the Ronde.

“It wasn’t always easy with Gilbert in the same team as we are the same type of rider,” Van Avermaet said. “It wasn’t easy to make the right decisions in the team sometimes, but you see that Phil is a big champion, he gives it all when he rides with you, 100%. If he was riding in my team, I couldn’t jump after him. I can now.”

Gilbert won the 2017 Ronde with a 55km solo attack, his victory aided somewhat by Sagan’s crash across the Oude Kwaremont in the final 20km that took down Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen. There he was, a first-time Flanders winner at age 34, alone at the finish line in Oudenaarde, resplendent in the Belgian champion’s jersey, holding his bike aloft in the air.

Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), winner of the 2017 Tour of Flanders.

“Gilbert switched to the Ardennes in the second part of his life, but now he is back where he belongs,” Lefevere said. “It’s a mentality switch for Phil. But if a rider loves and lives on the cobbles, you adapt, and if you don’t, or you don’t try them, then you fall behind. It’s as simple as that.”

Two weeks after winning Flanders, Gilbert won Amstel Gold for a fourth time — and with a torn kidney suffered in a mid-race crash, forcing him out of Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège but also demonstrating his toughness. He would win just one more race in 2017, a stage of the Tour de Suisse.

Gilbert played an integral role in Quick-Step’s classics domination last year, when the team won Le Samyn, Dwars door West-Vlaanderen, Nokere Koerse, Handzame Classic, Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, E3 Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders, and Scheldeprijs. Gilbert won none of those races, however, placing second at E3 Harelbeke and third at Flanders. His return to Roubaix, after an 11-year absence, ended with a 15th place finish behind teammate Niki Terpstra, who soloed into the velodrome behind Sagan and Silvan Dillier.

“I always imagined riding Roubaix, because I’ve always been good on the pavé, but I’ve done other things in my career,” Gilbert said last year. “It’s practically like I’ve been doing another sport for a few years, because I was racing against climbers and now I’m competing with rouleurs. If we were talking about it in boxing terms, it’s like competing in two completely different categories. And I like that challenge too, because it’s something completely different.”

A broken kneecap at the Tour de France last summer looked as though it had the potential to end Gilbert’s season in July. On Stage 16, he had a scary crash on the descent of the Col de Portet-d’Aspet while leading the race, flying over a parapet and into a ravine. He finished the stage 31 minutes behind teammate Julian Alaphilippe, who took the win, but later learned that he’d ridden the last 60km with a patella fracture. He stood on the podium, as the day’s most combative rider, with his left knee bandaged above his sock, which was soaked with blood.

It took multiple people to help Gilbert out of a ravine after his crash at the 2018 Tour de France.

Gilbert returned to his winning ways at his first race back from injury, the GP Isbergues in September, outsprinting Christophe Laporte on a rain-soaked course, with Quick-Step teammate Florian Sénéchal just behind, in third.

“I’ve worked so hard to get back here today,” Gilbert said. “Honestly, there have been some difficult moments when I’ve been at home fighting to make this comeback. I’ve had a great team around me at home, but you still have to do the work yourself, to put in the energy and focus.

“After my crash, some of the most positive opinions I heard were that I should be happy if I was back on the bike within four months. Now I’m already back after two months, and I took my first victory of the season. My goal was to get a win in this last part of the season. I know it was a bit crazy, and 99% of the riders would probably just be happy to come back, but I really believed I could do it.”

The culmination

It was that belief — the kind that comes after winning so many races for so many years — that led Gilbert to victory at Roubaix on Sunday.

After riding alongside Zdenek Stybar in pivotal support roles for Alaphilippe at Milan-San Remo and Elia Viviani at Gent-Wevelgem, Gilbert was always expected to be a team leader for Deceuninck-Quick-Step at Flanders and Roubaix.

And while he wore the jersey of the most dominant team at Paris-Roubaix, Gilbert’s victory on Sunday was far from a given at the start line. He’d fallen ill with stomach problems the evening before Dwars door Vlaanderen, and was forced to withdraw from the April 3 race. Likewise, he did not finish the Tour of Flanders last Sunday, still feeling the effects.

“I was disappointed after Flanders, but in the week leading to Roubaix I returned to training and focused on Roubaix,” Gilbert said. “I came into the race with pressure, because I was very motivated to overcome what had happened last Sunday and go for the win, especially as I felt that I had good legs.”

Gilbert and Politt initiated the winning move with around 66km remaining. They were initially joined by Sagan’s Bora teammate, Rudiger Selig, but Selig was dropped just before Sagan, Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Vanmarcke and Lampaert bridged up to form a leading group of six.

Gilbert at the front of the lead group, ahead of Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First) and Quick-Step teammate Yves Lampaert.

That group opened up a large gap and remained together until the final 20 kilometers. Van Aert, who had previously chased back on after mechanical issues and a crash, was first to lose contact when Gilbert accelerated.

Then, a few kilometers later, Gilbert attacked again, this time across the Carrefour de l’Arbre section of cobblestones with 16km remaining. Politt counterattacked on the next section of cobbles at Gruson, and Sagan, Lampaert, and Vanmarcke were unable to follow.

The German initially had a small gap of his own before Gilbert bridged up. Vanmarcke and Sagan did not react until it was too late, and they were left chasing with little help from Gilbert’s teammate Lampaert, who sat on their wheels as they tried in vain to close down the gap. A mechanical for Vanmarcke put another dent into their chances, and by the final five kilometers, it was clear that it was down to Gilbert and Politt in the finale.

Politt led Gilbert into the final few hundred meters on the track, where Gilbert blew past to take a convincing sprint victory at the line.

“I’m not afraid of long attacks,” Gilbert said. “They’ve often worked out in my favor. I got down to work with Politt, who is quite a brave rider. It was ideal to be in his company. In the finale, we rode flat out together, and in the end, it came down to who was the strongest – and that was me.”

Philippe Gilbert outsprinted Nils Politt in the Roubaix velodrome to win Paris-Roubaix.

Four Deceuninck riders ended up finishing in the top eight: Lampaert finished third, Sénéchal sixth, and Zdenek Stybar in eighth. The victory was the sixth in Roubaix for the Quick-Step squad since 2003, under three different riders, and the 23rd win for the team in 2019.

With the win, Gilbert became the ninth rider in history  — and the first since Sean Kelly, in 1986 — to take victory in four different Monuments.

Only three riders — Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck — have won all five Monuments; only two riders, Van Looy and Merckx, have won all five Monuments as well as a world championship.

“I knew that joining Deceuninck–Quick-Step would be an important step in my career,” Gilbert said on Sunday. “I am the kind of rider who likes new challenges, this motivates me, and here I found plenty of these: from winning Ronde or Roubaix to winning GP d’Isbergues, which was a race that was missing from my palmares. That’s why after today and the celebration we will have this evening, I will reset my mind and focus on the Ardennes Classics.”

At Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Gilbert will share team leadership with red-hot Alaphilippe, winner at San Remo who was banged up a bit last week at the Tour of the Basque Country.

In order for Gilbert to join the elite group of riders to have won all five Monuments, all that remains is Milan-San Remo; it’s a race Gilbert has started on 15 occasions, twice finishing on the podium. It’s a race that the Quick-Step team has won just twice in the past 20 years, and a race won by his young teammate last month.

Long story short, it won’t be easy. But that’s a subject for another day. For now, Gilbert will celebrate, recover, and then focus on the upcoming races.

It’s true, Gilbert is not the same rider he once was. And he may pay for that at the Ardennes Classics. However on Sunday in Roubaix, it was a very good thing.

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