With a glorious win in La Doyenne, one of cycling's five monuments, Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) completed a unique quadruple string of victories in the Ardennes week. The 28 year-old Belgian, who comes from the region near Liège, today became the first rider ever to win the Brabantse Pijl (La Flèche Brabançonne), Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in a single season.
In 2009, Gilbert quadrupled his wins at the end of the season, taking the Coppa Sabastini, Paris-Tours, Giro del Piemonte and the Giro di Lombardia. "This is a level higher and added to that is the fact that it all happened on home soil. It's the most beautiful week of my life. It's unbelievable what I pulled of this week. I enjoyed all moments and it was fantastic," Gilbert said.
Gilbert credits his unprecedented form to his years of experience and peaking at the right moment. "Mentally I did all I could to be ready for this week. For months I've been working to get in this shape. Since the start of the season I felt every week that I was getting closer to my top form. On the way to Liège I got a third place in Milan-San Remo and a ninth in Flanders, which should have been much better."
He also asked his team to limit interactions with the media to formal press conferences, which he said, "allowed me to focus on the race and stay with my teammates so we could create an atmosphere that led us all in the same direction. It's the result of experience."
That experience also played a role in his tactics in the finale when he followed the attack of Fränk and Andy Schleck on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons.
"When the Schleck brothers attacked together on the Roche aux Faucons I had to think about a couple of years ago when I went with Andy from the foot of the climb; I didn't want to make the same mistake on that climb. I looked back and saw that everybody was on their limit. It was a very fast race so maybe it was the decisive moment. I followed them and worked along. The cooperation was really good until the finish. It was a perfect race for me."
Once up the road with the Schleck brothers, it was clear they had to attack him as they're both known to be as poor in the sprint as they are good on the climbs.
Gilbert explained that he attacked on the Côte de Saint-Nicolas to get in a stronger position. "It was a delicate situation once again because I was racing with not only two brothers but also two icons in a one against two situation so I had to be alert.
"I kept taking strong pulls after the Saint-Nicolas because the couple of kilometers after it are suited to attacks. I didn't want to get into a series of attacks from their side. I was able to eliminate Andy for a couple of minutes, which allowed me to control them in a better way.
"I also knew that a headwind was blowing in the last straight on the Côte de Ans. If Andy would come back he would be working for Fränk. I knew I was the fastest in the last 200m but I expected an attack from Fränk because he was behind me. I rode like they do on the track, very attentive so I was ready to react."
The last Belgian to win La Doyenne was the late Frank Vandenbroucke in 1999. Ten years later he died in Senegal but Gilbert felt the spirit of VDB during his race today. "I was close with Frank and on Friday his mother said Frank would ride with me and support me in the race. I'm proud to follow on his footsteps," Gilbert said.
Another famous rider to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège was Michele Bartoli in 1997 and 1998. Just like Gilbert the Italian was a very complete rider and an Italian journalist said that Bartoli could win every classic. The Italian also said that he always regretted that he only rode Paris-Roubaix in the latter stages of his career.
"It's flattering to hear he said that because [Bartoli] truly was a very complete rider, even more than Bettini because he won in Flanders. I want to avoid the risks from Paris-Roubaix as it is a very dangerous race. Maybe I'll do it later in my career. There is still time enough and I think you need experience more than the physical strength. I've won all the Ardennaisses and that's huge. I've once finished third in Flanders and I think I can do better. I probably can win them all but I'm not going to put that pressure on myself.
"There are many other races I still want to win besides the Monuments. I dream about the world championships and I'm pleased with the courses for 2012 and 2013 which suit me. I have never worn the yellow jersey in the Tour de France although I came very close once when I was second. Winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège a second time would be unbelievable too."