Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal) has seen his share of talent rise and fall during his own long and distinguished career. He readily admits admiration for Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel as they fight it out in cyclo-cross and the Classics but raises questions as to how long the two multi-disciplined riders can maintain their current level and trajectory.
Both Van der Poel and Van Aert typically run cyclo-cross and road seasons back-to-back. That has yielded huge success for both riders in recent years but Gilbert believes that over time both riders may need to sacrifice one discipline for another.
“I don’t know if it’s possible to hold that level of intensity and life for so long because mentally it’s really demanding,” Gilbert said during Lotto-Soudal’s training camp when he was asked if both van der Poel and Van Aert can maintain their dominant levels for the next five to six years.
In 2020 Van Aert won Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, a stage in the Criterium du Dauphine, two stages in the Tour de France, took the silver medal in the World Championship road race and time trial, and then was beaten by van der Poel in a sprint after a thrilling edition of the Tour of Flanders. Van der Poel was not on the same brilliant form in the summer but impressed in the Classics and also mixed mountain bike racing into his schedule.
Gilbert had a disappointing 2020 due to injury after he crashed out of the Tour de France on stage 1 in Nice but he has transformed his skills and racing style during his long career. When he turned pro he had a threatening sprint but then focused on the Ardennes, before then cleaning up in the cobbled Classics, like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. The only Monument missing from his palmares is Milan-San Remo.
Gilbert has raced successfully for 18 years but he warned that the intensity placed on van der Poel and Van Aert could weigh them down in the future.
“They don’t have any life except cycling. I don’t know if you can hold on that long,” Gilbert suggested.
“Maybe they’ll have really short but successful careers or they’ll have to choose one discipline or another. I don’t know if they can hold on being like this for 365 days without a rest. It’s not easy to keep that intensity.”
Gilbert was also asked if the younger generation would continue to dominate the sport, as they had done in 2020 with the likes of Van Aert, Van der Poel, and Tadej Pogacar solidifying their reputations as world-class riders.
At 38 and near the end of his career Gilbert knows what it’s like to be written off at times due to age but he provided a timely reminder that experience still counts for something.
“It’s always changing a little bit. I remember in 2017 only riders of 35 or more were winning the big Classics and now last year it was only young riders. It’s not something official, that the youngest will win and I still think that the older riders can still win,” he argued.
“I’m sure that a lot of older riders can still be successful but of course, some of the younger ones are really impressive. We saw Pogacar, Marc Hirschi, van der Poel, and so many young talents and that’s something that we’ve not seen for a long time. Also Bernal is still really young. This generation is very impressive.
“They’re both really impressive,” said of van der Poel and Van Aert, “because they can jump from one discipline to another and be successful from day one. This I’ve never seen. I remember Sven Nys tried to do something on the road and he didn’t come close. Then we Absalon from mountain biking who tried on the road but was also nowhere, but these two, they come, they win, they go back to cyclo-cross and they win again. It’s really impressive.”
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