Re-Cycle: Philippe Gilbert’s Classics clean sweep in the Ardennes crowned at Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Four wins in 10 days gave Philippe Gilbert a unique clean sweep of the Ardennes classics in 2011, culminating in victory in the race most dear to his heart: Liège-Bastogne-Liège. A decade on, Felix Lowe speaks to the Belgian about a mesmerising run achieved on home soil in front of adoring fans.
Re-Cycle: When Philippe Gilbert owned the Ardennes
Putting a winning run together in cycling is not easy. Eddy Merckx won the Giro three times in a row; Miguel Induráin won five consecutive Tours and Sean Kelly seven swashbuckling editions of Paris-Nice. And Lance Armstrong, of course, won and was subsequently stripped of seven Tours de France.
But these sequences all came in Grand Tours or stage races. That’s not saying it’s easy, but there is more room for manoeuvre. Have a bad day, you can recover the next. And you have a whole year to recoup before doing it again. Winning consecutive Classics is a different matter. One bad moment and your run could be over before it has begun – or a rider could just as easily fall on the final cobblestone.
Let’s take football as an analogy. When London’s most famous club, Arsenal, last won the Premier League they did so off the back of an unbeaten 2003-04 season. But even the ‘Invincibles’ were allowed the luxury of 12 draws along the way while avoiding a single defeat. More recently, champions-elect Manchester City put a record sequence of 21 victories together – a far more impressive stat, but one that, ultimately, means less.
With football in mind, Philippe Gilbert’s clean-sweep of the Ardennes Classics in 2011 was the equivalent of winning a knock-out competition such as the World Cup – and doing so in his own back yard. Only one other rider, the Italian Davide Rebellin, had won the Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in a single season – in 2004, the same year as the Gunners’ historic haul. But Gilbert superseded Rebellin’s achievement by teeing up his treble with victory in De Brabantse Pijl.
Four consecutive wins in less than a fortnight formed the jewel in the crown of Gilbert’s annus mirabilis. In 2011, the 28-year-old was undeniably the world’s best cyclist, with 18 victories and even a stint in the Tour’s Yellow Jersey.
“I still can’t believe I won these four races in 10 days,” Gilbert says a decade after his Ardennes grand slam. “It’s real, but it’s hard to believe it’s true because it was so hard. I mean, only Rebellin did it before and I wasn’t really thinking about copying him. But it came race after race, you know?”
Here’s how the untouchable Philippe Gilbert put that run together, from outclassing Joaquim Rodríguez (so often the Ardennes bridesmaid) on the Caubert to showing up the Schleck brothers on the streets of Ans in front of a jubilant home crowd.
It’s remarkable to think that back in 2004, Davide Rebellin was 32 years young and hitting the sweet spot of a career that would still be going a full 17 years later. A month after finishing runner-up in Paris-Nice, the Gerolsteiner ace powered up the Cauberg to pip Dutchman Michael Boogerd-to-the-Amstel Gold by a single second. Three days later, his winning margin over compatriot Danilo Di Luca was two seconds larger as he surged clear on the Mur de Huy to double up at Flèche Wallone. The cherry on the cake came four days later when Rabobank’s Boogerd was once again denied in La Doyenne as the Italian became the first man in history to bag an Ardennes hat-trick.
But just seven years later, Rebellin’s record was surpassed. It began when Gilbert edged Björn Leukemans of Vacansoleil-DCM in a two-up sprint on an uphill drag at Brabantse Pijl. That was his first win on home roads since the previous July. Little did the Omega-Pharma Lotto rider know at the time that this was the start of a winning run that would go down in cycling folklore – and define the rest of his career. By then Rebellin himself had done enough to discredit his own historic hat-trick, having tested positive for the banned blood booster CERA during the 2008 Olympics. But his record stood – and was there for the beating.
If Gilbert’s run started at the race also known as La Flèche Brabanconne, it wasn’t as if he had been keeping a low profile earlier in the 2011 season. Unlike Rebellin, the Belgian’s haul came off the back of several strong results, most notably victory in the fifth edition of Strade Bianche, a top 10 in the Tour of Flanders and a podium finish at San Remo (where Rebellin, incidentally, had finished 168th prior to his grand slam). Gilbert had also notched stage wins in the Volta ao Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico. But the Ardennes Classics were the ones he wanted most.
“Yeah, I’d had a good start to the season and I was really focused on the Ardennes because it had been my goal for the past two years,” Gilbert recalls. “I’d finished third and fourth in Liège and I’d won Amstel the year before and come fourth, so I was really working specifically on those races. I’d come really close to winning all of them and I knew I had to step up. I told myself that I’d proven myself every year, but now I needed to deliver. I was really focused on everything I did.”
Amstel Gold: Gilbert the favourite
Philippe Gilbert | Amstel Gold Race 2011
Image credit: Getty Images
With the number 1 bib on his back as defending champion, the in-form Gilbert was understandably the bookmakers’ favourite to win the 51st edition of the Amstel Gold Race, which played out in warm, dry conditions. Not only did he have the legs, he was at the head of a strong Omega-Pharma Lotto team that also boasted a stand-out Belgian trident of Jurgen van den Broeck, Jelle Vanendert and Jan Bakelants in support.
But the defence of his title – and the first part of his bid for an Ardennes treble – was under threat when Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck kicked clear of the leading group with 10km remaining. The 2009 Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner opened up a gap of 10 seconds, and it was left to Lotto to lead the chase after the Rabobank team of Spain’s Oscar Freire refused to lend a hand.
“I still had Van den Broeck and Vanendert with me,” says Gilbert. “But I was debating a bit because, if I remember well, there were about three or four Rabobank riders in the group, including Freire, who was a hard guy to beat and was always riding smart.”
Gilbert says he dropped back and approached Rabobank’s Robert Gesink to get the Dutchman’s team to chip in. “I remember saying: ‘Hey, look, you guys have three or four riders, you should put one up and help me,’ and he said: ‘No way, we’re not helping you.’”
So Gilbert had to take matters into his own hands. With Schleck still holding a decent gap ahead of the twisting descent to the foot of the Cauberg, Gilbert led by example and came to the front. In the Eurosport commentary box with David Harmon that day, Sean Kelly was not convinced. “Well, if Gilbert starts taking it up here, it’s too early. Maybe he wants to be in a safe position for the descent – that I understand – but if he continues on riding here, he’s going to lose it.”
Kelly went as far as to suggest that the defending champion was panicking. “This is not what he has to do here,” said the Irishman. “He has to play the waiting game, bluff it a bit longer, because Rabobank are going to crack – they will definitely put some riders to the front and try to close it down to Schleck.”
But Gilbert had his own reasons for upping the tempo. Far from panicking, he claims he had everything under control: “I took the lead in the last descent to the Cauberg, the one which is no longer on the route. I knew it well and I took the corners full, full to the limit, and with that, I came back on Andy and I also split the group in two.”
With Freire caught on the wrong side of that split, Rabobank were forced to expend a lot of energy in bringing things back together ahead of the Cauberg. Meanwhile, Gilbert had Vanendert with him to drill out tempo in what he describes as “the perfect situation for us”. At the time, however, neither Kelly nor Harmon believed that Gilbert, after such a huge effort, had enough to drop his rivals on the final climb to the line – with Rodríguez billed as the “dangerman” by Harmon, Rabobank still in with a shout, and Kelly “concerned” about the Belgian burning his matches too early.
“It does look like panic, doesn’t it Sean,” Harmon said. “Rabobank are going to benefit from this. Everybody is.”
One person who definitely didn’t benefit was Andy Schleck, the Luxembourg whippet’s brave attempt foiled just after the flamme rouge on the early double-digit gradient of the Cauberg. Rodríguez had led the chase, the Spaniard from Katusha zipping clear with Gilbert hot in pursuit. Looking back, Gilbert pulls no punches when it comes to dissecting the strategy of the man he beat on not just that day, but many others.
“Rodríguez generally always had a problem with his tactics in the finale,” he says of the man who had already finished runner-up in all three of the Ardennes classics without ever standing on the top step of the podium. “He would always bounce at the wrong moment – and it was like this that day. He was like a teammate for me – he did the perfect lead-out. If you look at his races, a lot of times he did that.”
Gilbert puts the Spaniard’s blunders down to the fact that he did not have as strong a team around him.
“I think that’s why he was so often nervous in the finale,” he says. “He was probably thinking, at the bottom: ‘I’m a climber, he’s not a climber… and on the longer efforts I can beat him.’ Maybe he was thinking like this. But the Cauberg, if you take it from the bottom, it’s maximum two minutes anyway. So it’s still a really short effort.”
It took just a rapid out-of-the-saddle surge for Gilbert to power past his rival underneath the overpass on the Cauberg – and as the road flattened out near the top, the Belgian was able to sit up, soak up the atmosphere, and celebrate his win. Winning in front of his friends and family provided some extra motivation for Gilbert, but it was also important for his morale to get over that first milestone.
“To win with number 1 on your back is always nicer,” he says. “Then you think that the year before was not a surprise or a mistake – I won because I was the best.”
One down, two to go…
La Flèche: keeping the powder dry
Philippe Gilbert | La Fleche 2011
Image credit: Getty Images
Three days later, on Wednesday 17th April, Gilbert and a near identical Omega-Pharma Lotto team started La Flèche Wallonne in Charleroi. His victories in De Brabantse Pijl and Amstel made him the hot tip. But for the man of the moment, the focus remained very much on Sunday’s showdown in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
With a Monument in mind, Gilbert told his teammates that they would ride conservatively throughout the Flèche, in a bid to stay as fresh as possible ahead of La Doyenne.
“I told them: ‘Okay, guys, in Amstel we did a lot of work and if we want to be successful next Sunday at Liège we’re going to need a little bit of energy.’ I said we cannot ride for 200km in the lead on Wednesday, then repeat this on Sunday. So, I said: ‘Let’s take the race how it is, we don’t do anything, we don’t put pressure on, you guys just ride as perfect training for Sunday, and we see in the final what happens.’”
The race played into their hands as the Katusha team of Rodríguez were prepared to control the peloton, enabling Gilbert to stick near to the back and out of trouble. In perfect racing weather, it was not until the second-last ascent of the infamous Mur de Huy that the Belgian moved up to the front. Only now, with 25km to go, did Gilbert tell his teammates to put in a big effort.
“Everyone was there, alert and ready,” he recalls. “From this moment we closed the race. We rode a nice tempo and didn’t let anyone get away – to ensure a nice bunch was together at the bottom of the last climb and see if it was possible or not.
Not to give less value on my win, but it was not the hardest Flèche Wallonne. It was actually quite easy compared to some editions – like 2012, with the rain and crashes.
Around 80 riders remained in the main field as the peloton hit the Mur de Huy for the decisive climb – a different beast compared to the Cauberg climax of Amstel.
“The Cauberg is on the big chain ring and the Mur de Huy is the small chain ring.” That’s how Gilbert measures the distance between the two. “It’s really a different effort,” he says. “It’s longer – almost five minutes.”
The presence of Vanendert on the front of the pack gave Omega-Pharma Lotto a Plan B as well as a strong lead-out for Gilbert, who decided to make his move much earlier than he had on the Cauberg.
“I really have good memories of that,” he says. “Vanendert was just pacing me perfectly and I could choose my line. I didn’t have to break my effort – because this happens a lot on the final climb: you have to brake a little bit, stop pedalling, and it just breaks your legs, you know – and here I was on the front, and it gave me a lot of motivation.
“Also, I was thinking: ‘Wow, it’s the first time in my life I’m in the best position in this race.’ Thirty-five minutes before I wasn’t even thinking about winning, you know. This gave me a big boost. Then, of course, there were so many people cheering for me. In the media they had always been talking about me the last two weeks, with my wins in La Flèche Brabançonne and Amstel. So many people were there for me, and that pushed me also to the victory.”
Didn’t he feel any pressure knowing that the expectation levels had gone into overdrive?
“I like the pressure,” says Gilbert. “I like when people expect me to win – this has always been good for me. When I’m the favourite, I’ve never had a problem with that. It even gives me extra motivation.”
Gilbert attacked with 500m to go before anyone else had the opportunity, using a small dig from Frenchman Christophe Le Mevel as a springboard to open up a huge gap coming out of the coiled turns – a gap that would never be closed.
“Oh my gosh, look at that acceleration from Philippe Gilbert!” This was the reaction of Paul Sherwen, commentating on the international feed. “Can anybody match this man? He looks over his shoulder. He’s in complete control of this race. Rodríguez is trying to keep himself in this contest, but there’s a gap and it’s widening. Gilbert is starting to dominate this bike race. He has waited patiently in the main field throughout the whole day for this one moment.”
The crowd went ballistic as their man crossed the line with his arms aloft. Rodríguez came home three seconds down and ahead of compatriot Samuel Sanchez. Part two of Gilbert’s Ardennes trilogy was in the bag.
Liège: Gilbert’s World Cup final
Philippe Gilbert wins Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2011
Image credit: Getty Images
With every passing win, the interest in Belgium was ramped up. If the Ronde van Vlaanderen is arguably the biggest race on the Belgian calendar, Ardennes Week provides the most intense block of racing on home roads. And in 2011, with one of their own running away with the spoils in each event, more and more fans were tuning in to see if Gilbert could go the distance.
To escape the limelight, Gilbert opted to stay in a hotel across the border in Holland and away from the glare of the Omega-Pharma Lotto hotel, where journalists were camped out and fans gathered with their pens and notebooks for signatures.
“I was staying where no one knew I was,” he says. “I didn’t want to see the journalists. I didn’t want to stay in the same hotel as the team where I’d be filmed and questioned by the media. No one knew where I was, so I was really relaxed. I was really focused on my goal, which was winning Liège.”
Gilbert was now just days away from completing a run that he’d inadvertently started one week earlier. Having got through the knock-out stages, he still had his World Cup final to win: the race that really mattered.
“When I started winning Brabantse Pijl, I said: ‘Why not win Amstel now?’ And after Amstel: ‘Why not Flèche Wallonne?’ But my main goal was always Liège. That’s why, on the press conference on the Friday before Liège, I said: ‘If I could change the three wins for just one – here at Liège – it would be enough for me.’ Because it was really my dream race.”
It was by no means a foregone conclusion. Gilbert might have been in the form of his life, but he was also a marked man – the single rider everyone expected to win and so the one with the heaviest burden on his shoulders. There was also the extra pressure that came from the whole of Belgium watching in a race that three times passed through his hometown of Verviers.
Finally, there was also Danilo Di Luca’s precedent to consider: just one year after Rebellin’s unprecedented clean sweep, his countryman looked poised to repeat his feat with victories in both Amstel and the Flèche. But the man known as ‘The Killer’ was given no leeway in La Doyenne, and Di Luca limped to 26th place after winner Alexander Vinokourov caught the favourites off guard with a long break alongside runner-up Jens Voigt.
Not only would Gilbert have to be on his best form if he wanted to keep in touch on the Redoute, Rosier and Saint-Nicolas climbs, he’d have to be alert to the threat of a strong breakaway going the distance.
“We knew from the start that there would be a lot of pressure,” he recalls. “And we didn’t want to see a really good group going ahead.”
In near-perfect conditions once again, just 10km had passed before Lotto’s plan went pear-shaped, a solid break forming-while they were caught off guard. Gilbert doesn’t mince his words as he remembers his reaction:
I was quite p***ed with my teammates, if I’m honest. I said: ‘Now, you f***ed up, you’re going to have to work hard to get it back straight,’ you know? So, we put a lot of pressure on them.
Belgium’s Jurgen van der Walle put in what Gilbert recalls as a 150km stint on the front of the pack to keep the break in check. This huge shift allowed Lotto to keep a lid on things while not using up the energy of their other support riders.
The Leopard-Trek team of Andy and Frank Schleck stepped in to lend a hand as the break’s three-minute advantage began to tumble. A new move of 10 men managed to go clear on the Côte de la Haute-Levee with around 60km remaining, sweeping past the strugglers from the initial break as a new 14-man move formed ahead of the pack.
On the next climb, the Côte du Rosier, Gilbert says Katusha started to put in a flurry of attacks. After successive second places behind Gilbert, Rodríguez was clearly motivated for a breakthrough win in the series of punchy one-day races that best suited his strengths. Lotto rose to the challenge, putting Jan Bakelants in charge of following the repeated digs by Katusha. Once again, Gilbert is fairly scathing in his appraisal of his rival team’s tactics.
“They chose to go on the attack – and when you choose to go on the attack, it means that you also destroy your own team, you know? Every time they sent one on the attack, he was doing a nice effort, but after he was gone. So at the end, Rodríguez was almost on his own in the final, which was a surprise to us.”
As it happened, the isolated Rodríguez would do a watered-down Di Luca, capping his two second-place finishes at Amstel and the Flèche with a lowly 26th in Liège. Much more of a concern for Gilbert at the time was the Leopard team of the Schleck brothers, who were clearly preparing for a move ahead of the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons once the break’s numbers had been halved on the climb of La Redoute.
“I knew I had to follow them,” says Gilbert. “It was quite risky on the descent because I saw that they were preparing the big attack of the day. After only 100m of the climb, Andy went full-gas on the attack – and I was right there. I was mentally ready to respond.”
Initially, Italy’s Enrico Gasparotto, Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet and Frenchman Jérôme Pineau could follow the move, but only Gilbert’s compatriot was able to just about hold on as the final escapees were brought to heel.
“We caught the guys one by one and only Van Avermaet could follow a little bit,” says Gilbert. “It was a pretty annoying because he wasn’t riding and we didn’t know if he was playing or if he was honest. When we came to the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, he was dropped early and it was only us three.”
Once BMC’s Van Avermaet had gone, Gilbert felt a thorn had been plucked from his side. He was now able to focus on the two brothers. Andy had two top-five finishes either side of his 2009 Liège win, while Frank had twice finished on the third step of the podium. They would be no pushover.
Observing his opponents in heated discussion on the climb, Gilbert figured one was feeling better than the other. So he decided to test the duo at the top with a big acceleration. With 6km remaining, amid the trumpets and topless torsos of the fans gathered on the summit of the Saint-Nicolas, the home favourite made the crowds roar by putting in a vicious surge that only Frank – just – could follow.
“I was right, because my feelings were good and Andy was not so good that day,” says Gilbert. “We opened a gap and I put him under pressure to come back. When he came back, I remember he said – I don’t really understand Luxembourg, but it’s a little similar to Flemish – he said that he was riding for Frank.”
This put Gilbert’s mind at rest. With the younger Schleck coming to the front, Gilbert knew that he had only to beat the elder Schleck in the final. He could focus on the last kilometre, the ramp into Ans, the sprint, and completing the final chapter of his magnificent oeuvre.
Phil Liggett, commentating for the international feed that day, was under no illusions that a Gilbert hat-trick would mean much more than the only other man to have managed that feat. Rebellin had been sanctioned in 2009 following his Olympics bust and was forced to sit out the following season.
“It was seven years before, in 2004, that Rebellin did the magical treble, but since then he’s been in disgrace – again, being found guilty of drugging-up for events – so we can’t really take that with the same credibility that we might take a treble by Philippe Gilbert,” said Liggett.
Gilbert, meanwhile, still had to seal the deal. Surely it was something of a formality against one-and-a-half Schlecks?
“Yeah, but you never know,” he says with trademark modesty. “I was really nervous – even if on the images you couldn’t see it. I was scared of getting a mechanical problem, or something like that. I was really careful not to be too close to them – I didn’t want them to touch my bike and break something. I was thinking they wanted to box me in. Andy was pulling and I was on his wheel but I was afraid that if Frank went, he could maybe surprise me. So I was always looking at these details.”
There was certainly a heart-in-mouth moment as Gilbert emerged from the Schleck sandwich on the home straight, launching his sprint with a slight wobble as he darted from the left to the right side of the road. But in the end, it was a routine win for the man who’d made history in his own backyard.
“He lives in the region and he’s won every one of the past three races of the Spring Classics,” Liggett purred on TV. “That will make him very special in the local bars and cafes tonight. He’s now gone overnight from just a star to a superstar. Well done Philippe Gilbert, absolutely wonderful cycling.”
The aftermath: one big Belgian party
Having twice won the Giro di Lombardia (in 2009 and 2010), Gilbert had now won the Monument he had his heart set on, becoming the first Belgian to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the new millennium, and the first since the late Frank Vandenbroucke in 1999. He did so in front of jubilant crowds the kind of which he feels “we may never see again” in the Ardennes.
While the win was a personal milestone, he also appreciates that it meant just as much for his countrymen who were watching in person or on TV.
“There are some people who always come to watch my races,” says Gilbert. “And I remember speaking to them once and they said: ‘We’ve been following cycling ever since your victory in Liège.’ “Because, it was so big in Wallonie that they were only talking about that. Everyone was following that. Some guys started following cycling from that day, and they remind me today – it was really, really unique to see that. I’m really proud of having these moments in my life.”
After all his post-race commitments, including a live TV show – during which he admitted he had just lived “the most beautiful day of his career” – and a victory dinner with the team, Gilbert did not get back to his hometown of Verviers until late in the evening. There were still, he remembers, “almost 4,000 people” awaiting his triumphant return.
“It was just like crazy,” he says. “Crazy, crazy. My fan club were organising the party and they had to drive all over the place to find some taps of beer because everywhere had run out. People had been celebrating and drinking so much. It was something unique. I don’t remember how many beers we served that day, but it was a lot.”
Over a celebratory bottle of champagne with his brothers, it struck Gilbert how lucky he was to be able to be with his friends and family, at home, so soon after his historic achievement.
“I said to myself: ‘F***, imagine if you win Flanders and you’re still 200km from your house and it’s impossible to do that.’ But here we were really at home. On the roads I had started cycling. It’s all mixed in your head and it was almost impossible to believe.”
Of course, back in 2011, winning the Tour of Flanders was just a pipe dream for the man who’d just pulled off an unprecedented Ardennes quadruple.
‘All about the pain’ - Gilbert on what it takes to win a Classic
What happened next: wearing yellow and the rainbow stripes
After a well-earned rest, Gilbert returned to action a month later in the Tour of Belgium, which he won off the back of victory in the fourth stage. He won the four-day Ster Zlm Toer in June and then the national championships. Then, three days before his 29th birthday, he took a career-first Yellow Jersey by winning the opening stage of the Tour de France – beating Cadel Evans on the uphill finish at Mont des Alouettes.
Further success came in the Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian, Eneco Tour, the Belgian TT championships, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec and the Grand Prix de Wallonie as Gilbert ended the season at the top of the UCI World Tour rankings with 18 victories – more than anyone else in the peloton.
A big-money move to BMC followed, where Gilbert struggled to replicate his imperious 2011 form. He was sixth in Amstel Gold as Enrico Gasparotto took the spoils ahead of Gilbert’s former teammate Jelle Vanendert and Peter Sagan. In the Flèche, Joaquim Rodríguez finally took his win ahead of Michael Albasini as Gilbert settled for the final spot on the podium ahead of Vanendert. And then, in Liège, the Belgian finished almost 1’30” down in 16th place as Kazakhstan’s Maxim Iglinskiy soloed to glory for Astana.
After a frustrating season, Gilbert finally found his feet in the Vuelta with a brace of stage wins before he treated home fans to something special with victory in the World Championships in Valkenburg ahead of Edvald Boasson Hagen and Alejandro Valverde, following a trademark surge up the Cauberg. But winning the Worlds was no turning point in Gilbert’s BMC career as the curse of the Rainbow Jersey struck, the Belgian rider picking up just a single scalp in 2013 – a stage win in the Vuelta.
Looking back on his form drying up, Gilbert now admits that he was perhaps a victim of his own success. While candidly accepting that he suffered psychologically as his form died, he is also quick to play down the extent of his supposed decline.
I was struggling from the big season I had in 2011, he says. We only speak about success, but not sacrifice. I was always away, and on the edge of everything. I went really deep, both physically and mentally. I think, in the winter after 2011, I had a kind of a burnout. It was hard to get back on track – plus it was a new team, new bikes, a new approach and tactics. I just needed a few months to get into the new rhythm. Then I was okay.
“Sometimes I feel also that, in 2012, people think I did nothing. But I was also third in Flèche Wallonne, I was up there in many of the Classics, but just a bit behind. It wasn’t like I was sh*t and dropped after 20k, you know? I was just a little bit less – and, of course, when you’re used to winning, people expect you to win. But you can’t always win. Only Merckx did that. And until now there’s only one Eddy Merckx. We can’t all do that.”
With BMC also boasting former world champions in Cadel Evans, Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Ballan, as well as a soon-to-be Olympic gold medallist in Greg Van Avermaet, was it perhaps a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth in the Swiss super-team?
“I think it’s a mix of all this,” Gilbert admits. “I think BMC was a really great team. But we missed these feelings of togetherness because we were all new, we hadn’t ridden together before and we had to learn about each other. I needed to adapt. That’s why I was much better in the second part of my first season at BMC.”
Reinvention at Quick-Step
In 2011, as Gilbert was accumulating wins like there was no tomorrow, providing his Omega-Pharma Lotto team 18 of their 29 victories for the season, it’s interesting to note that the same success was not being enjoyed by their rivals at Quick-Step.
It’s hard to imagine today from a team that has made winning part of their DNA, but Patrick Lefevere’s squad in 2011 – despite boasting the likes of Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel, Niki Terpstra and Zdenĕc Štybar – were experiencing the kind of season, collectively, that Gilbert would enjoy individually once he swapped Lotto for BMC.
Just five wins all year was a poor return for the team that was meant to be Belgium’s finest, with Boonen’s victory in Gent-Wevelgem their solitary WorldTour triumph. It was perhaps with slight irony that Gilbert, after five largely underwhelming years at BMC, finally joined Quick-Step Floors in 2017 at the age of 34. Here, Gilbert felt at home from the outset.
“I remember the first time I got my new bike from Specialized and I did a three-hour ride and it was really amazing,” he says. “I didn’t have this period of adaptation [like I had at BMC]. I felt straight away good on the bike at Quick-Step. And when a rider feels good on his bike, it’s the secret of success. So I’d say that, thanks to the bikes, I was also really good at Quick-Step.”
Indeed, if many thought Gilbert had joined Lefevere’s team merely to be a mentor to the young riders as he approached retirement, they were soon proved otherwise. During five years at BMC, Gilbert had only amassed one more victory than he did in his entire final season at Omega-Pharma Lotto. And while the move to Quick-Step wouldn’t increase the volume of his victories, the quality went off the scale.
Just months into his new chapter, Gilbert won the Tour of Flanders. A fortnight later, he notched a fourth Amstel Gold groove in his bedpost. Two years later, he repaid Lefevere’s confidence in extending his contract by winning Paris-Roubaix.
Soloing to victory in the Ronde in the Belgian national champion’s colours or pipping Nils Politt in the Roubaix velodrome – were either, in Gilbert’s eyes, a greater achievement than his first victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the win that capped that extraordinary 10 days in the Ardennes?
“It’s different,” Gilbert says after a long intake of breath. “But it’s not so high-level because I was a different type of rider. When I won Liège I was 69 kilo, and when I won Flanders I was 73. I was heavier, I had more muscles because I worked a lot more in the gym because my goals were different. I wasn’t the same rider, but I was the same guy with the same motivations and ambition.”
Despite winning the World Championships on home roads before a reinvention that saw him win two more of cycling’s Monuments after being written off by so many, does Gilbert still look back at that Liège victory in 2011 as the most beautiful day of his career?
“Yeah, I think so,” he says.
Because the Worlds was also big, but it was different. In 2011 the atmosphere was built day by day, the expectation was really high. The Worlds, okay, I was also winning two stages in the Vuelta just before, but it was not the same. Here, for Liège, everyone was pushing me and was behind me.
No one has won all three of the Ardennes Classics in one season since Gilbert in 2011 – although Alejandro Valverde came close in 2015 with a Flèche-Liège double after finishing second behind Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski in Amstel Gold.
“I’m actually surprised that more riders haven’t done it,” Gilbert says, stressing he thinks a clean sweep is definitely something we could see again – primarily because the start lists in these races are usually very similar, with a near identical skillset needed to win all three.
“I’m surprised that Valverde never did it,” Gilbert adds. Of course, it’s worth saying that the Spanish veteran – a four-time Liège winner and undisputed king of the Mur de Huy on five occasions – was banned from racing in 2011, the year of Gilbert’s grand slam.
“Yeah, that certainly made a difference with the results,” Gilbert admits. “Normally he would be a threat. I realise not everyone likes him, but he’s a good rider, he’s smart, he’s always there where he had to be. He’s a really hard guy to beat. For me, I was lucky he wasn’t there.”
There is no shortage of candidates in today’s peloton to follow in Gilbert’s footsteps. French world champion Julian Alaphilippe, Swiss tyro Marc Hirshi, Dutch superstar Mathieu van der Poel, and even Slovenia’s Grand Tour specialist Primoz Roglic have all tasted success in the Ardennes – just not across the board.
Perhaps the most likely is Wout van Aert, another Belgian rider seemingly capable of taking on any terrain and coming out victorious. If van Aert is in the midday sun, Gilbert is now in the twilight of his career. And at 38, he is realistic about his chances. Rather than win in the Ardennes, he would much prefer to take the final Monument that eludes him: Milan-San Remo.
With his young teammate Caleb Ewan coming close in 2021’s unpredictable edition of La Primavera, Gilbert now in all likelihood has just one more chance to join compatriots Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck as a winner of all five of cycling’s major one day races. More than a decade on from his quadruple, it will probably be beyond him. But only a fool would wholly discount someone with such strong powers of reinvention.
“There’s a chance I might do that – and it would be crazy,” he says. “For me there’s a lot of pressure also. It would be stupid for myself to say: ‘Ah, I’m getting close, but I’m not interested’. Of course, I have to be involved in that chase and see that it’s possible. But I’m also realistic.
“I say: ‘Okay, this race I cannot control’. It’s not a race I can tell the guys the day before that I’m 90 per cent sure of winning. I will never be able to say that in San Remo.”