An interview with Philippe Gilbert, January 9, 2008.
Heading into his sixth season with Française des Jeux, Philippe Gilbert has lost none of the rapid-fire pedaling style that propelled him to victory at the 2006 Het Volk. And while last year's results were disappointing in comparison, he's ready to kick off again at the 2008 Tour Down Under, as Cyclingnews' Jean-François Quénet found out.
Saint-Quentin, in the Picardy region of northern France: Not quite the paradisiacal destination that professional athletes dream about in December, with temperatures hovering around zero degrees Celsius. However, this has never bothered the man from Remouchamps, Belgium who has always been seen riding his bike in the Belgian Ardennes since his days in the under 16 ranks, no matter what the weather was like.
So while most teams head south at this time of year, the team backed by the French national lottery remain in Saint-Quentin - home to assistant manager Martial Gayant and a passionate fan base nurtured by the team since its inception 12 years ago.
Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom up north, as the pre-Christmas training camp always begins with a party. "Cycling is a popular sport and I insist on the possibility for any fan to be able to have a drink with his favorite champion once a year," says team boss Marc Madiot. During his career as a rider, the double Paris-Roubaix winner was famous for his loyal following, coloured in the black and yellow of his Renault-Gitane team - a tradition continued with the four leafed clover symbol of Française des Jeux.
"We, the professional cyclists, we aren't demigods, we must stay close to our public." -Gilbert has always been known as one of the most approachable riders in the peloton.
Eighteen hundred fans are registered with the team's fan club, and Madiot invited a special one - Lucian, an 82 year-old Belgian who's often seen at the roadside handing up water to riders - to the 11th century Abbey of Vaucelles for the team's party. "I'll do it as long as I'll be alive and healthy," Lucien tells the crowd, adding that Gilbert is one of his favourites being so readily approachable.
"We, the professional cyclists, we aren't demigods, we must stay close to our public," is how Gilbert sees it. He's always been just as eager to please his supporters as his pay agent when it comes to winning races. But after the high of beating then world champion Tom Boonen at Het Volk in 2006 followed by stage wins at the Dauphiné Libéré and Tour of Benelux, last year was a disappointment for Gilbert, who only secured one victory - Stage 1 of the Tour of Limousin.
"I don't look at last season with regrets because I did everything right," he insists. "I had an operation in January and a few more worries later in the year, always when I was ready to perform. But I've been frustrated of course and it gives me a lot of motivation to produce good results in 2008."
Gilbert claimed his first win at the age of 21, the year he turned professional at the 2003 Tour de l'Avenir. But it was his Stage 3 win in Victor Harbor at the 2004 Tour Down Under, beating riders like Gene Bates, Robbie McEwen and his then FDJ team-mate Baden Cooke, that he rates as his first real achievement as a professional.
"I've kept found memories of the Tour Down Under," he recalls. "Australia is a wonderful country and this win gave me the ambition to aim at an interesting pro career. But I also remember that I had trained a little too much prior to that 2004 season and I paid for it later in the year. There are some mistakes that you don't want to repeat."
He is also not a big fan of jet lag, and never put his hand up again when Gayant asked who at FDJ would like to ride the Tour Down Under. Therefore, the French team that was known for its strong Australian connections with Bradley McGee, Cooke, Matt Wilson and Mark Renshaw, didn't return to Adelaide after 2005.
When the Tour Down Under was granted the Pro Tour status during the week of the 2007 world championships in Stuttgart, it became a different story for Gilbert. He believes in competitiveness and doesn't want to lose his time at races where only a few of the top teams and the top riders attend. With the ProTour not including the Grand Tours anymore, the number one Walloon rider might be a possible contender for the 2008 title. However, the Classics remain what he loves the most in cycling.
"My first real goal will be Milan-San Remo," he says. In 2007, he managed to escape the bunch on the Poggio and joined with Riccardo Ricco at the top of the crucial climb. The duo missed the few seconds advantage needed to keep the bunch at bay on the via Roma, but Gilbert remains hooked on the hope of winning a classic. "After the Het Volk, my next step is to aim at the Tour of Flanders," he adds. "But I know the level is very high there and I'm not in a situation to allow myself to tell everybody that I'll finish on the podium of such a Classic. I'd be happy with a nice result."
The Classics are also in the hearts of Madiot and Gayant since those were their stomping grounds in the '80s. That's probably why Belgian riders have attracted their attention after they closed their Australian chapter with the departure of McGee to Team CSC. Rather than recruiting more experienced Walloons for the exclusive service of Gilbert, as Christophe Detilloux and Thierry Marichal's respective careers came to an end, they went for young, hungry and ambitious Flemish riders.
Tom Stubbe and Jelle Vanendert from Chocolade Jacques joined forces with FDJ, Gianni Meersman also chose the French team under the advice of his coach Dirk Demol after the fall out of Discovery Channel. "I know Stubbe quite well," Gilbert says. "He's only one year older than me and we were team-mates as amateurs at ABX-Go-Pass. Vanendert lives close to the Ardennes and often comes and trains on the same roads as me."
Vanendert, 22, caught the attention of many people when he finished 13th in the Flèche Wallonne, something that shows the potential of a rookie. For his first pro season, Meersman got two wins with stages at the Tour of Georgia and the Tour of Austria. The three Belgian recruits are complete riders, able to do well in the different types of Classics. "It motivates us even more for our Belgian front," Gayant says. FDJ still has the same two veterans for the classics with Christophe Mengin who was 5th in the 2007 Gent-Wevelgem, aged 38, and former Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Tours winner Frédéric Guesdon.
"I won't do Paris-Roubaix again," Gilbert warns. "I really didn't like it. My first experience in 2007 was definitely not a good one."
Gilbert's full program for the first part of the season will include: Tour Down Under (January 22-27), the Mallorca series (February 10-14), Tour du Haut-Var (February 24), Het Volk (March 1), Le Samyn (March 5), Paris-Nice (March 9-16), Milan-San Remo (March 22), GP E3 Harelbeke (March 29), Tour of Flanders (April 6), Amstel Gold Race (April 20), Flèche Wallonne (April 23) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (April 27).