Gilbert's metamorphosis moves him one step closer to Monument immortality
Paris-Roubaix victory leaves Belgian one short of a Monuments sweep
At the end of the 2016 season, Philippe Gilbert's career was at a crossroads. Over 30, and without a contract offer from BMC Racing, the Belgian was forced to search for a new team for the first time in five years. What's more, without a Monument win since 2011 options were scarce.
At the time Astana were mentioned as possibility, before Patrick Lefevere stepped forward and presented an opportunity that was mutually beneficial for both team boss and rider. The canny Lefevere offered Gilbert a pay cut, and with a roster already crammed with Classics riders of the caliber of Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra, it would have been easier for Gilbert to take a better financial offer someplace else and wind his career down before eventual retirement.
What Lefevere realized, however, was that although his offer came with conditions, it also gave Gilbert the chance to rebrand and rebuild himself as a cobbled classics specialist. No other team could offer such a backdrop.
It was certainly a gamble, but together Gilbert and Lefevere hatched a plan. Aware that Gilbert was no longer the explosive rider he once was, they would modify him into a diesel. Gilbert would get the chances to race the biggest races, and in return, Lefevere would pay low and reward with high bonuses.
Three years into the project, and it was little wonder that it was Lefevere who gave Gilbert the first of many warm embraces on the finish line in Roubaix. Come Monday that bonus will need to be deposited in Gilbert's account but for now, while the champagne flows, even Lefevere will toast yet another Classics win.
For Gilbert, victory in Paris-Roubaix represents two Monument wins in three years, and at 36 he's just one Milan-San Remo win away from equaling Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck, and Eddy Merckx as a winner of all five of cycling's Monuments.
"Clearly I had the attributes of a puncheur and was made for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Amstel Gold Race, Il Lombardia and I did that for most of the first part of my career," Gilbert said in his winner's press conference. "I then decided to take a gamble and work differently. It was also a gamble to go to the best team for the Tour of Flanders, the Classics team, Quick Step team.
"I did it to have all of the chances on my side and I did it and it worked very well and very rapidly. The first year I won Flanders and two years after I've won Paris-Roubaix and it just proves I was right to believe in myself. Basically, in life and in sports you need to have new challenges.
"It was a big bet because if I kept doing what I was doing in the Ardennes, I would still be successful and maybe win a fifth Amstel, something like that or a second Liège. I was thinking about what is important in sport and it's important to win, well in my eyes, and win the most number of different races as possible."
Four down, one to go
Gilbert is the first rider since Sean Kelly to win four different Monuments, and although Milan-San Remo might be a stretch for the Belgian, he will almost certainly follow the Irishman and race until his 38th birthday. Granted, Kelly won four Monuments before he was 30, but Gilbert's metamorphosis from an Ardennes rider to a capable hand on the cobbles suggests that another shift in gear could well be in hand.
On Sunday he was imperious. He followed moves, stretched his rivals to breaking point, and then dispatched a valiant Nils Politt with relative ease in the finale. It was a performance as complete as his Liège-Bastogne-Liège win in 2011 or his second Il Lombardia win in 2009. What made this performance even more impressive was that Gilbert looked off the pace last week in the Tour of Flanders, when illness threatened to derail his campaign.
"I've maybe not had that many tears at the finish before," he said. "I put a huge amount of pressure on my shoulders after the disappointment of Flanders and it had to happen today and when you win a sprint there's always an explosion of joy and you can only enjoy the victory after the finish line and the emotion is different.
"Most of my victories in the past, I won on my own so I knew I was going to win so the emotion today was very different with a few kilometers to go, you still don't know whether you're going to win or not. It was a huge emotion and I realised again today what a good decision it was to go to Quick Step.
"Quick Step won their 700th victory with more or less one hundred different riders – it's as much as Eddy Merckx although with one hundred riders. It's great to win with this team that has so many qualities and has only one goal and that's victory."
A beaming Lefevere would certainly agree with those sentiments. He has built a dynasty over the last twenty years and his teams have come to represent the standard need to succeed in the Classics.
In Gilbert, he has proven winner and despite the passing years, the 2012 World Champion remains a bonafide star. Where this Roubaix wins ranks among Gilbert's palmares is open to debate but given his lack of experience on the cobbles – this was just his third start in Paris-Roubaix – it will certainly be among his most cherished.
"I like panache. I used to love riders like Museeuw who would take off far from the finish. I used to dream of them and I basically have tried to copy what they've done in the past. In the past I've won through long attacks, I won my second Lombardia when I went with Michele Scarponi with around 50 kilometers to go and then the same here today.
"That's where I feel that I'm the best and when I can make the difference. When the other leaders are fighting together mano-a-mano. I think it's always better to win new races and have new challenges."
Whether Gilbert remains at Quick Step beyond 2019 is unclear. He's out of contract at the end of this season, but what's certain is that he still believes in finding new challenges. Maybe Milan-San Remo isn't such a stretch after all.
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Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at Cyclingnews.com between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
By James Witts