After witnessing the pure domination of the current Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne champion, Philippe Gilbert, FDJ manager Marc Madiot is now regretting allowing the Belgian to leave the team in which he raced for nearly seven years.
Gilbert began his professional career with the Madiot's team in 2002, but after he won the Omloop Het Volk and Paris-Tours and came third in Milan-San Remo in 2008, Madiot could no longer afford to keep him. Since then, Gilbert, with his Belgian Lotto team, has won stages of Grand Tours, the Giro di Lombardia and Amstel Gold Race twice and last Wednesday his first Flèche Wallonne.
Madiot, a double winner of Paris-Roubaix, in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, will now direct the team behind leader Pierrick Fedrigo who, should he make the top 10, would give a great outcome to the French team.
In 2002, Madiot could see special qualities in the 20 year-old Gilbert and began his investment in the Belgian's career. "I spotted him in the U23 Tour du Picardie. He finished 6th or 7th after doing a good race. Afterward I headed to his home in Belgium to talk with him and his parents and that was it," Madiot said.
Gilbert started as a trainee for La Française des Jeux on September 1, 2002 and the next day he rode his first race among the professionals, the GP Isbergues in which he finished seventh.
The first victory came one year later in the highly-rated stage race for young riders, the Tour de l'Avenir. Teammate Bradley Wiggins had been the race leader early on but during the penultimate stage it was time for Gilbert to step into the spotlight. Gilbert beat Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) in a two-man sprint of a hilly finale.
"Every year he made some progression. Right away I knew he was a man for the Classics, without choosing pavé over the Ardennes. At first I wanted him to ride all the Classics to get to know them all. Once he'd seen them all a first time we could set more targets but it was important to have done them all," Madiot said.
Gilbert went on to grab wins in important French races like the Tour du Haut Var and the Trophée des Grimpeurs. In 2006 Gilbert broke through with wins in the Omloop Het Volk (now Omloop Het Nieuwsblad), a stage in the Dauphiné Libéré and the GP de Fourmies. While Gilbert was clearly getting stronger and ready to tackle the cycling Monuments, it was getting harder and harder for Madiot to keep hold of him.
"It was difficult. We would have needed an extra sponsor. I no longer had the financial possibilities to keep him," Madiot sighed. After spending almost six years under the wings of Madiot their cooperation ended when Gilbert signed for the then Silence-Lotto team.
The relationship between the two, however, is still intact. "Last year I was at his marriage and he was present at mine. We call sometimes and send each other text messages but not too much, we see each other at the races."
The next race the two will meet is Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Gilbert is the top favourite but Madiot felt it would be very hard for the Belgian to conclude his winning streak with a victory in his home region.
"Tomorrow is the hardest one of all races for him to win. It's the most difficult one for him and for his team because it's too close to his home. A lot depends on when the war starts. If it starts early it'll be hard for him," Madiot said.
It's not that the Frenchman didn't want Gilbert to win because when asked what was still within Gilbert's reach Madiot was very quick with his answer. "I hope he becomes world champion and wins Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders." For now it seems highly unlikely that the two will be back in one team to capture those wins, especially since the strong-budgeted Astana team has been trying to attract the Belgian recently.