Philippe Gilbert has been crowned Best Rider of the Year by Cyclingnews readers, earning over 50% of the votes cast. Always a consistent performer in recent years, the Belgian seemed to reach new levels in 2011, and his devastating accelerations on short, sharp slopes allowed him to reel off a series of victories remarkable in their quality as well as their quantity.
Tour de France winner Cadel Evans took second place in the poll, while world champion Mark Cavendish was third. In any other season, either man would have been a worthy winner of the Rider of the Year crown, but such was Gilbert’s dominance that his triumph can brook little argument.
On learning of the honour, Gilbert thanked his Omega Pharma-Lotto teammates for their work in helping him to throughout the season, as well as Cyclingnews’ readership for voting for him.
“First of all thanks to all of the team and then I thank everybody behind this screen,” Gilbert told Cyclingnews in a video interview. “For me, it’s the first time so it’s a good prize and I’m happy to have it.”
With 18 victories to his name in 2011, it is an onerous task to pick out a single defining highlight from a season where Gilbert appeared equally at ease on the Strade Bianche of Tuscany under slate grey March skies as on the melted tarmac of the Clasica San Sebastian on a dog day afternoon in August.
Raised at the foot of La Redoute and weaned on La Doyenne lore, however, Gilbert understandably plumped for his victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on the final Sunday in April. In outwitting the Schleck brothers on the Côte de Saint-Nicolas and then outgunning them on the drag to the line at Ans, Gilbert not only took a long-awaited first victory in his home Classic, he also sealed a famous hat-trick of Ardennes Classics.
“I had a lot of nice successes, especially Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne,” he said. “Those races are in my region of Liège. I lived there for 25 years, so for me it was a dream to win those races and Amstel. It was very special for me to live that week and those successes.”
Preceded by an almost matter-of-fact victory at Brabantse Pijl, those Classics would go on to form part of a phenomenal run of results from the Belgian, who was quite literally unbeatable in late spring and early summer.
After the Classics, he took overall triumphs at the Tour of Belgium and Ster ZLM Toer, and then grabbed the Belgian road race title. He crowned the sequence by ripping clear of the peloton on the Mont des Alouettes to take the opening stage of the Tour de France and the race’s first yellow jersey.
“I had that series from April 14 to July 2 without losing a race,” he said. “I think it was a record in cycling and I was very proud to do this long period with all the victories. Then, the yellow jersey and the first win in a stage of the Tour was a very special moment.”
Given the extent of Gilbert’s dominance on the road, it would have been unthinkable had the WorldTour rankings not reflected as much, and he duly claimed his place as world number one with victory at Grand Prix de Québec in September. “It’s a really nice race with good organisation, but it’s there that I also got back the number one position in the world ranking,” he explained. “For me it was very special.”
One of Gilbert’s few disappointments of the year came at the world championships in Copenhagen, where he failed to make an impact on a course that ultimately proved wholly unsuited to his characteristics as a puncheur. He is already looking forward to the opportunity to make amends on more familiar terrain in Valkenburg, site of the finale of the Amstel Gold Race.
“This year was not a nice world championships, but a nice winner because Cavendish will show the jersey all season next year,” he said graciously. “Personally next year I will have more of a chance to win, but I will start also with the big number one favourite number on the back and it’s not so easy to start like this.”
The dawning of a new season also sees Gilbert join BMC as arguably the brightest star in the Andy Rihs’ expensively-constructed firmament of galacticos, but no matter what he achieves in the years to come, his 2011 campaign is already inscribed into the history books.
In an era when riders have increasingly tended to specialise and focus on particular periods of the season, Gilbert’s spate of victories was a year-long exhibition of ascendancy the likes of which has not been seen since Laurent Jalabert in 1995 or perhaps even Sean Kelly in 1984. Currently at a training camp with his new BMC team, and with 2012 already firmly in mind, however, Gilbert is reluctant to dwell too much on the weight of his victories.
“I think it’s too early to think about [my place in] the history of my sport because I’m so focused on my career,” he said. “I don’t have the time to go back and look at all these results, but I think in a few years’ time when I stop my career, I will say ‘oh, I did a great season.’ For now, I am too focused on the next season already. I just enjoy the moment and the present.”
1. Philippe Gilbert 11174 votes (51.7%)
2. Cadel Evans 4816 (22.3%)
3. Mark Cavendish 3153 (14.6%)
4. Thomas Voeckler 854 (3.9%)
5. Tony Martin 613 (2.8%)
6. Jaroslav Kulhavy 332 (1.5%)
7. Marianne Vos 317 (1.5%)
8. Juan José Cobo 140 (0.6%)
9. Zdenek Stybar 132 (0.6%)
10. Giorgia Bronzini 103 (0.5%)