Philippe Gilbert, along with many, will be making his Belgian racing debut for 2016 at this weekend’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. With the beginning of the Belgian Classics imminent, Cyclingnews spoke to Gilbert about his memories of the Classics and why he likes them so much.
Over the years, Gilbert has made his name as a one-day specialist and is one of only two riders to have ever won all three Ardennes Classics. From the province of Liege, Gilbert was raised on the hustle and bustle of the Ardennes. “Every year I went [to Liege-Bastogne-Liege] and Fleche Wallonne also,” he tells Cyclingnews.
“It’s maybe a different public [at the Ardennes] but the passion is the same [as in Flanders]. Everybody loves cycling [in Belgium] whether you come from the north or south. Maybe there are fewer people in Liege than in Flanders but it’s still one of the biggest races of the season. When you see this picture from the Cote de Saint Roche, the first really steep climb, it is really impressive.”
Gilbert’s beloved Ardennes features some of the oldest races on the calendar, with Liege-Bastogne-Liege the oldest of them after it began in 1892. It has seen some daring escapes and epic battles through its past. Modern-day cycling has become about accumulating points to ensure your team’s position in the all-important rankings, but when the Classics roll around each spring points are the furthest thing from Gilbert’s mind.
“My spirit when I go to the Classics, I always go to win it,” he says. “I don’t think of I can get so many points if I finish fifth. I really try to win and if I cannot win then maybe another place will come but the win is the main goal.”
And win he has, taking seven victories at the Classics including three Amstel Gold titles. He has also put himself onto the podium twice at the Tour of Flanders. By far his most memorable moment was that run of victories during his 2011 Ardennes campaign, which was capped off with the win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. After taking everything in the run-up, including Brabantse Pijl the week before, the pressure had been on Gilbert to deliver again.
“It’s so special because I won everything before and everybody was expecting me to win again. For me that was the most important thing, to win,” says Gilbert. “I remember saying at the time that I would exchange all the wins just to take this one. This one was so important in my eyes.”
Liege-Bastogne-Liege holds extra importance for Gilbert, who was born close to the city in Verviers. It is hard to escape the Phil fever at the race, with fans mobbing him at any opportunity. Much of his fan club line the hillside up La Redoute, where his name is emblazoned on the road the whole way up. It is there that he and his brother Jerome go every year after the race to spend time with the fans.
“For years, we have organised something there. The goal is to get money to help organise races for the young ones, to help the local clubs to develop and hoping to get a new champion in the area,” Gilbert explains. “That’s why my family has been working really hard on this and I think the best way to say thank you is to go there and say hi to everyone. Usually, it is my last race before my break so I can enjoy myself and have a beer with them. It’s quite nice.”
First victory at the Classics
Gilbert’s achievements have made him a hero in his native Wallonia. However, his first major win came in the Flemish part of Belgium. Gilbert escaped away to a convincing victory at the 2006 Omloop Het Volk (the previous name of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad) and he found success there again two years later with another escape to the line.
“It was not really a Classic but it was something big, I was 23 years old. When you can win a race like this when you are young, it is something special. When you are young, it is something that you dream about,” Gilbert told Cyclingnews before reliving the aggressive finale. “We started attacking and never stopped. Then we were a group of maybe five guys, and I attacked two more times and the last time was the right one.
“There were a lot of attacks; the whole final was full gas. I knew that with seven kilometres to go I really had to go full gas but it wasn’t easy because it was flat and open, and they could see me. I knew that I shouldn’t look behind and just go for the line.”
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Born in Ireland to a cycling family and later moved to the Isle of Man, so there was no surprise when I got into the sport. Studied sports journalism at university before going on to do a Masters in sports broadcast. After university I spent three months interning at Eurosport, where I covered the Tour de France. In 2012 I started at Procycling Magazine, before becoming the deputy editor of Procycling Week. I then joined Cyclingnews, in December 2013.