An interview with Philippe Gilbert, December 24, 2006
With characteristics akin to Paolo Bettini, Philippe Gilbert is Belgium's biggest young gun behind superstar Tom Boonen. Growing in stature and palmarès each year, he'll attempt to ride the fiercest classic of all in 2007, as Jean-François Quénet discovered at the Française des Jeux training camp.
Watching the sea isn't a part of the everyday life of a citizen of the Belgian Ardennes but Philippe Gilbert had an opportunity to breathe the fresh air of the Atlantic Ocean during the five days training camp in the marine centre of Pen Bron near Nantes last week.
It followed the usual annual party of the Française des Jeux team fan club that saw 1,500 members attend. On Saturday, December 9, team manager Marc Madiot announced the winners of the series he personally organises for under-17 cyclists. He also introduced five newcomers: Thierry Marichal (ex-Cofidis), Sébastien Chavanel (ex-Bouygues Telecom), neo-pros Johan Lindgren from Sweden and Tim Gudsell from New Zealand - who enchanted his team-mates with a spectacular demonstration of the haka - as well as future pro Mikaël Chérel, who will be joining the team on August 1.
"I believe many riders don't want to see Ivan Basso back in the bunch." - As the sole Belgian representative in the CPA riders' association, Philippe Gilbert is used to having his opinions heard - and doesn't hold back
"It's always exciting to get to know our new team-mates," said 24 year-old Gilbert from their pre-season training camp in the west of France, an FDJ rider since 2003. After introducing Christophe Detilloux to Madiot last year, he is now able to bring compatriot Marichal along, perhaps best known for his service to top team leaders such as Andreï Tchmil at Lotto. "It's important to create a core," said Gilbert.
"Human resources are the key to success in cycling. When I prolonged my contract with Marc Madiot, we agreed on signing one or two Belgian riders. Maybe there'll be another one next year. Marichal is a specialist for the classics. He's one of the best domestiques in cycling. In this sport, as far as I know, rarely does a rider win alone without help."
Gilbert also mentioned the classics. After winning Het Volk in 2006, he's aiming for more. "Beforehand, I never won as a professional in my country," he recalled. "It was something special to win the first classic of the year. For us, the Het Volk always comes after three months of people waiting for the first race of the new season. The media are passionate about it. The excitement was even bigger in 2006 with Boonen wearing the rainbow jersey in Belgium for the first time. It was his [Boonen's] dream to win the Het Volk, but he won the Tour of Flanders instead, and many other races as well."
Gilbert and Boonen are from the same generation of new, friendly and classy Belgian cycling champions. Obviously nowadays, Gilbert remains in the shadow of Boonen. "I don't mind if another rider attracts more media attention than I do," he said. "That's not going to depress me. I love my job above all. Everything about Boonen is legitimate. He's the best cyclist in the world. He wins all year round, he attends smaller races with the same motivation as at the biggest ones, he always does his best, he's got an exemplary behaviour in the peloton, he's known worldwide and he brings to cycling many new young affiliates. He definitely deserves his great reputation."
Gilbert and Boonen ride for two different teams but five days a year, they become team-mates for the world championship. Although he's still young, Gilbert is the pillar of the Belgian national team. In fact, he has never been given a miss since he rode the world's as a junior in Plouay in 2000! Every year, in every category, he has represented Belgium, and in 2004 he did it twice because he made the Olympic team as well - Boonen didn't.
In Salzburg, national coach Carlo Bomans had two protected riders: Boonen and Gilbert. "The leadership was to be decided by our form on the day," Gilbert explained. "We were three Belgians with Stijn Devolder and Jurgen van Goolen in a 25 man breakaway. In the finale, I was missing a bit of strength. In any case, it would have been kind of a bunch sprint finish.
"Being the world champion would be great for me; maybe it'll work one day but I've got time, I don't put pressure on myself now. I'll try to become Belgian champion before. My personal fan club is going to organise the Belgian championship in Aywaille in 2009 but I haven't promised them that I'd win it. I came second this year. Nico Eeckhout led the sprint from a long way out [350 meters - ed.], I thought I'd pass him but I never did. I don't have any regret because I did my best and I didn't make any mistake. In a classic, a top 10 is a positive result but in a championship, only the first place counts."
Gilbert isn't rated as a sprinter but he's quite fast. His characteristics are actually quite similar to Bettini's. "I've never won a bunch sprint but I love taking part in them," he said. "With the departure of Bernhard Eisel [to T-Mobile], we don't have a top sprinter at FDJ anymore, unless Sébastien Chavanel becomes a top sprinter, so we'll be entitled to move more. With Brad [McGee], Cookie, Bernhard and also a little bit with [Jimmy] Casper, I'm used to working for excellent sprinters. I've seen how they do it. It gave me the experience and maybe one day I'll win a bunch sprint myself. This is one of the most exciting things in cycling."
Gilbert's tactic is usually saved for the last hour of the race. He has won five races in 2006: the Het Volk, a stage in the Dauphiné Libéré and the Eneco Tour, the GP Wallonie and GP Fourmies. "The way I've won them makes me proud," he said. "Apart from the Dauphiné, where I surprised myself by breaking away 160km from the finish, I attacked in the finale and stayed away with a very small margin. I also enjoyed the experience of riding for 10 days in the Giro but I won't do it again next year. It has helped me winning at the Dauphiné but I paid for it at the Tour de France.
"I'll ride Paris-Nice as a preparation for the classics. In my opinion, it's better than Tirreno-Adriatico because there's more time to recover before Milan-San Remo. For the first time, I'll also start Paris-Roubaix. I've never done it, neither as a pro, nor as an amateur. At least this year I'll give 100 percent for the Flemish races and we'll make a plan after Paris-Roubaix and discuss whether I can still do my home races, the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège."
In 2006, Gilbert reached the Pro Tour level. In 2007 he wants to be a winner there. "My dream is to win one of the big monuments in cycling," he stated. His race preparation begins at Christmas with two cyclo-cross in Loenhout and Middlekerke. "Since I was 14, I've always taken part in some cyclo-cross. I love the atmosphere. It's much more of a family affair than it is in road cycling, where every team stays in its bus or tent in the village. In cyclo-cross, we're closer to our fans. It requires a lot of concentration and technique. I'm never at the peak of my form during the cyclo-cross season but I always enjoy it a lot."
As a young guy from Wallonia, challenging the tough Flemish cyclists in cyclo-cross has also earned him a lot of respect from the whole Belgian cycling community. He is the representative of all Belgian pro cyclists at the riders' association, the CPA. "But we don't communicate enough," he regrets.
"We haven't spoken since the end of the 2006 although there are serious issues like DNA in the air. It should be up to our president to take a decision but we don't know how Francesco Moser has been elected. I don't think it would be very complicated to send a short questionnaire via e-mail to all the riders, then we'd be able to figure out what the riders think. I believe many riders don't want to see Ivan Basso back in the bunch. If he was honest, he'd have accepted to give his DNA straight away when Operación Puerto started, he'd have wanted to show to everybody that the blood bag wasn't his. It's also up to the UCI to do their job."
Cycling has great champions like Boonen and Gilbert, but they will begin a new season with dark clouds looming above them.