Three years ago, on a similar first stage finish to today’s on the Mont des Alouettes, Spain's Alejandro Valverde took the first yellow jersey of the Tour de France and in doing so reminded everyone why he was nicknamed “El Imbatido” or the “Unbeaten One”.
In Valverde’s case it was just a nickname that was eventually defeated by the Italian anti-doping investigators. For Philippe Gilbert the same sobriquet is fast becoming a statement of fact. As the Belgian pointed out in his winner’s press conference in Les Herbiers on Saturday evening: “I’ve won every race I’ve done since Fleche Brabançonne in April. I suppose it’s a kind of record.”
Gilbert’s boast contained the only mistake he made all day: of the eight races he has started since April 13, he has won 'only' seven. A second-place in the Belgian national time trial championship in June is the sole blemish of his record season.
“It’s true that it's hard to take in what I’m doing,” Gilbert said of his 'annus mirabilis', which featured a clean sweep of the Ardennes Classics in April. “It’s definitely been better than I could ever have hoped for. Not only have I won a lot of races and a lot of great races, but I’ve also won them back-to-back. It’s been very special.”
Gilbert, like everyone else, is running out of superlatives. Famously modest, even he admitted that there may only be one man in the world who can currently compete with him on an uphill finish like the one to Mont des Alouettes: 21-year-old Peter Sagan -still judged too young to tackle the Tour by his Liquigas team.
“I think he can beat me on a finish like this,” Gilbert conceded. “I think he’s the only one who can compete with me on a course like this.”
More time in yellow than green
With Sagan sidelined, it would be unwise to discount Gilbert’s chances of winning again and perhaps even reclaiming the race lead on the Mûr de Bretagne on Tuesday. Omega-Pharma-Lotto’s record in team time trials is less than stellar, and their leader admitted tonight that his first reign in yellow would “probably” end with tomorrow’s 23km test around Les Essarts.
As for the green jersey, which will be worn by Cadel Evans on Sunday, Gilbert was cagey about whether the points competition figures among his long-term aims. The Liège-Bastogne-Liège champion also hinted that he is lukewarm about the rule change which now sees 20 points awarded to the winner of each intermediate sprint.
“It’s true that I don’t really understand the rule change. It’s all a bit confused. Let’s see how it goes. The whole Tour could be blocked because of this rule. We saw the way [Tyler] Farrar’s team worked before the intermediate sprint today.
“The green jersey is not in my head,” Gilbert added. “It’s not an objective at the moment, although it could become one. My team manager Marc Sergeant and I were talking about this the other day. He told me that when Robbie McEwen was in his team, McEwen would only think about winning stages, then see how he was placed in the green competition later. That way there was no pressure or stress. Maybe it’ll be like that for me. But we’ll see later on.”
For the moment, Gilbert is happy to savour his first ever 'maillot jaune' And the Tour de France enjoyed its new “Imbatido” or, “Imbattu”.