This is not exactly a family business like the others, one of those pairs of siblings that cycling so likes to promote. Philippe and Jérôme Gilbert are not the same as Andy and Fränk Schleck, who both aim to win the Tour de France. Jérôme, the younger brother of the World's number one cyclist, is a beginner in the peloton and doesn't dream of challenging last year's Liège-Bastogne-Liège's winner.
He has just signed his first pro contract for 2012. “Better a semi-pro contract,” he tells Cyclingnews, as he is moving to the continental squad, Geofco-Ville d'Alger. The new team, with a Belgian base and an Algerian license, will be managed by former pro Geoffrey Coupé and has hired Nico Mattan as directeur sportif.
So far, Gilbert has been a modest amateur rider in Belgium. His famous name in the peloton didn't help him – even if he “was proud of his brother” - but didn't harm him either – even if his rivals watched him more than the others and stuck more on his wheel.
But now that the media has started to follow “the other Gilbert” he can play with the situation a bit. “To be pro with Geofco-Ville d'Alger is a great deal for both sides”, he says. “I bring the team some advertising, they give me an opportunity to be a semi-professional.”
Gilbert knows time is running out: he will be 28 next season, almost two years younger than Philippe. However, a few months ago, the prospect of a pro career seemed an impossibility. He worked as delivery man and storekeeper in a hi-fi shop and only rode “for fun” twice a week.
Everything changed with a gruesome crash at the Tour of Faso, in October 2010. On stage two of the popular African race, where he was one of the European guests, Gilbert hit a pothole. Verdict: a brain injury, about eighty stitches on his ripped-up face and five months without any physical activity.
“Honestly, I sometimes thought I wouldn't recover,” he said. “The first three months I had blanks and words couldn't come. I still shudder just by talking about this period.”
On May 31, 2011, Jérôme Gilbert won his biggest victory: he is definitely safe to ride again and succeeded in his comeback to cycling. He even chose the toughest kermesse of Belgium: the Gullegem Koerse, where Philippe won.
The crash in Faso changed him. “Now, I know what it means to suffer,” he said. His body has changed too: his sprinter profile moves to that of an all-rounder. He can take seriously what people have told him since then: “If you are serious, you have the potential to turn pro.” Gilbert quit his job and dedicated his schedule to cycling, training with Leopard Trek's Maxime Monfort. In July he finished 20th in the hilly Tour de la Province de Liège, among the best Belgian amateurs.
As a semi-professional with Geofco-Ville d'Alger, Gilbert targets “a life experience”. One-and-a-half years after his accident he will go back to Africa, to Algeria, for a training camp next January. His schedule will be split between African and European events but he doesn't expect to see his brother often at races.
It's his dream to race with him. Or, better still, to race for him. “Basically I would love to be in the same team as Phil one day,” he said. “I don't pretend I will be a champion, I know I am not so young, but to be a good teammate for my brother would be a fantastic achievement for me and the family.”
This year, he supported his older brother as a spectator. “His victory in the Flèche Wallonne was really special to me because it's the Classic that suits him the least,” he said. In return, Philippe pushed his young brother, trained with him sometimes in Monaco or near the family home in Remouchamps, Belgium, a village at the foot of La Redoute climb.
Recently, Philippe sent an email to Jérôme: “You can have a ten year-career.” The younger Gilbert, who has already fulfilled his dream of turning pro, doesn't dare dream of a long cycling career. He might, though, follow the path of another kermesse rider in the 1990s, Ludo Dierckxens, who became a pro aged 29 and raced for eleven seasons.
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