Philippe Gilbert has won almost everything there is to win as a one-day specialist. Now, at the age of 35, he can look back at a career full of highlights, including Monuments, a world title, and countless other victories. As part of Cyclingnews' Belgian week, we sat down with the Quick-Step Floors rider to talk about the five races that meant the most to him. You'll find a few surprises – the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold, and the World Championships are not included – but what'll you hopefully discover is a nostalgic rider who hasn't let success change him. Philippe Gilbert, the old romantic.
Tour de l'Avenir 2003, stage 9
So the first thing you'll probably want to know is why I've not selected the Worlds, Flanders or Amstel. There are two reasons. The first is that I wanted to start at the beginning of my career and go from there. I don't know about other riders but for me the first victories were always the nicest, and I've chosen races I've won because of the emotional attachment that they've given me and other people. For me, that last point is really important. I race for beautiful emotions. For me it's not always about the most prestigious, it's about the emotions, and sometimes I think you forget the first times.
This particular victory was my first professional win and I was at FDJ at the time. Bradley Wiggins was on the team and he won the prologue. We had Benoît Vaugrenard in second. Then the next day we were pulling and I finished third, then second, fifteenth, thirteenth, sixth, fourth, seventh and then finally I won on stage 9 into Solliès-Ville, ahead of Samuel Dumoulin. I was fourth on GC and chasing stages but this stage finished with an uphill finale. It was actually the same sort of finish on which I've won a lot of races. I remember Euskaltel did a lot of work leading into the climb because they had the race lead, but I was the strongest. In a way, it was the blueprint for the rest of my career.
This is on my list because it was my first Classic win. I had been close a few times and had won a stage of the Dauphiné by five minutes and taken Omloop. Again, this is a really hard choice. At the Dauphiné I had the yellow jersey and was riding against the big guys like Landis, Valverde and Leipheimer. I was leading them and was still in yellow after the long TT, which meant that I climbed Mont Ventoux in the yellow jersey. But Paris-Tours is on my list because it was a Classic. And back in that time it was still a very prestigious WorldTour race. It's not like that anymore but it used to be part of the World Cup and was 260 kilometres.
When I was a young kid I would always watch the Classics and I used to love that World Cup jersey. It wasn't the rainbow jersey but it was still special and it meant a lot to me as a child. I grew up hoping to wear it one day but a few years before I turned pro they scrapped the whole World Cup project. I think the UCI have maybe given too much importance now to the stage racers, so the one-day riders, like me, have nothing really left.
I think I was fourth at junior level, second at under 23, and four times second as a pro. I was so close but never won, despite being incredibly motivated. In 2011, on a course that didn't really suit me because it was flat, I managed to find a way of attacking and holding on for the win.
Sometimes as a rider, you know you're going to win when the course suits you. There are also times when you think you're going to win because the course suits you but for whatever reason you fall short. In this case I didn't think I could win, even though I was on top form. I still gave it everything because I knew that the Tour de France was a week later and that it would be incredible to win a stage in the race while wearing the national champion's jersey. The first stage of the Tour that year finished at Mont des Alouettes Les Herbiers. I knew that from the course profile I had a chance and eventually I did both, winning the nationals and then the first stage of the Tour.
The Worlds win changed my life but so did Lombardia. It was in the rain, I was wearing dossard number one because I was the defending champion, and I can honestly say that it was the hardest day of my life on the bike.
It was a lovely battle with Michele Scarponi, too, and last week when we raced through his town at Tirrreno-Adriatico I was reminded of the day we competed against each other. It brought back a lot of memories for me. We rode together that day, and it was one of those days where you leave all your energy on the road. It was what cycling should be about, beautiful battles and going deep. I've never gone that hard. I remember I gapped him at one point but he fought back and we ended up doing the final climb together. He was digging in but I just managed to crack him before the summit. I did the last four or five kilometres on my own.
The win meant that I finished the year inside the top three riders in the world and I took a lot of pride in being one of the top three riders in the sport.
I knew that, unless my chain dropped in the sprint, I would win. When I crossed the line, I had no idea what to do so I just put my fingers to my lips. It was a mixture of happiness and pride. Liège is my home race and I think I had done it six or seven times. Just racing Liège for the first time felt like a win because you know the roads and everyone is there and you can pick people out in the crowd. I remember saying that I would swap all my wins for a Liège title because it was the one I wanted the most. Also, winning those four races in a row was something that had never been done before. Not even Merckx did that!
What stood out, though, during that period, was the pressure. I could feel it rising up every day and people were coming to the hotel where I was staying with the team and the numbers just became bigger and bigger. There was more and more media, great expectations, and it was hard to keep focus. Everyone was expecting me to win and there was huge amount of pressure on me. I felt that if I didn't win it would have been a disaster, and that people would have forgotten my previous three wins.