Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: A man named Phil

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews editor-at-large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This 10th installment focuses on the career of rider of the week Philippe Gilbert.

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Rider of the week Philippe Gilbert heads to the Ardennes

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews editor-at-large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This 10th installment focuses on the career of rider of the week Philippe Gilbert.

2004 Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Philippe Gilbert
Gilbert races over his own name on La Redoute in 2004.

Seven years ago this week, while scouting the 2004 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, I had to scratch my head when I saw a name painted on the pavement dozens of times up the iconic slopes of the Côte de La Redoute: “PHIL … PHIL … PHIL …”

For a moment, I thought of Phil Anderson, the Australian pioneer who three times made the podium at Liège in the 1980s. But the paint was too fresh for races that took place a decade or so earlier.

Then it clicked. This Phil must be short for Philippe, not Philip. And the rider must be Philippe Gilbert, a then-promising 21-year-old Belgian hope in his second season with the French team La Française des Jeux.

On checking, I saw that Gilbert was born in Verviers, just down the road from Liège, and that his home was at the foot of the Redoute climb in Remouchamps, a town of slate-roofed houses with cobblestone streets and an old arched bridged over the fast-flowing Amblève River.

With his local connection, Gilbert’s name being painted on the slopes of La Redoute made sense, even though this would be his first time riding Liège. His hometown fans “knew” that their boy was going to be a special rider, and this was his first appearance in La Doyenne, the world’s oldest surviving classic.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams
(in UCI .1 races and higher through April 18)
1. HTC-Highroad 17 (seven riders)
2. Garmin-Cervélo 12 (seven riders)
3. Rabobank 12 (five riders)
4. Team RadioShack 11 (seven riders)
5. Lampre-ISD 10 (six riders)
6. Saxo Bank-SunGard 10 (four riders)
7. Movistar 9 (four riders)
8. Liquigas-Cannondale 8 (four riders)
9. Leopard-Trek 7 (three riders)
10. Omega Pharma-Lotto 7 (two riders)
11. Vacansoleil-DCM 6 (four riders)
Sky 6 (four riders)
13. Katusha 3 (three riders)
14. Quick Step 3 (two riders)
15. Astana 2 (two riders)
AG2R-La Mondiale 2 (two riders)
17. BMC Racing 2 (one rider)
Euskaltel-Euskadi 2 (one rider)

Gilbert comes from a cycling-crazed family and was racing a bike as soon as he was big enough. He eventually joined an amateur team coached by Dirk De Wolf, a former pro who raced in Anderson’s era and won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1992. De Wolf and Gilbert bonded, and it was something of a surprise when Gilbert signed his first pro contract with FDJ, and not a Belgian team, at age 20.

In six seasons with the French squad, under the management of two-time Paris-Roubaix winner Marc Madiot, Gilbert never seemed to reach his full potential. He didn’t win a race in his native country until his fourth year with FDJ, when he scored a fine victory in the semi-classic Omloop Het Volk after an attacking race over the final stretches of cobblestones. (Related: Gilbert wins 2006 Het Volk)

But this wasn’t a true breakthrough for Gilbert, as the following year he won only a single race: a stage of the minor French race, the Tour du Limousin. But his end-of-season form was strong enough for him to lead a late breakaway at the Paris-Tours classic, even though it was caught in the final kilometer.

Then, in the spring of 2008, Gilbert again won the Het Volk race and took third place at Milan-San Remo; but he felt his career wasn’t progressing as he would like with FDJ, and by June that year Gilbert decided he was going to move to his present Belgian team — after he was told that his old mentor De Wolf would be one of his sport directors.

Ironically, at the end of his sixth and final year with FDJ, Gilbert got the breakthrough he’d sought by winning Paris-Tours: He bridged up to a small breakaway group on the last short climb and then took the four-man sprint, four seconds ahead of the chasing peloton. (Related: Gilbert wins 2008 Paris-Tours)

In 2009, Gilbert had immediate success with his new team, Silence-Lotto (later re-branded as Omega Pharma-Lotto). At the spring classics, he showed his versatility by placing third at the Tour of Flanders, fourth at the Amstel Gold Race and fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège — maybe not the victories he’d hoped for, but that series of performances showed that his renewed partnership with De Wolf was paying off.

2009 Giro d'Italia, stage 20: Philippe Gilbert wins
Gilbert wins stage 20 at the 2009 Giro

Gilbert’s career really shifted gears at the 2009 Giro d’Italia, where he won stage 20 with a lightning-fast uphill attack for an impressive solo win. That presaged a triumphant return to Italy in the fall, when he won the Coppa Sabatini, Tour of Piedmont and Tour of Lombardy (his first monument) all in the space of 10 days, which included a quick trip to France where he successfully defended his Paris-Tours title.

That brilliant late-season sweep was reminiscent of Eddy Merckx, who won all the sport’s monuments multiple times, including four editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the classic that Gilbert will try to win for the first time this coming Sunday. Another similarity with Merckx — at least in terms of the classics — is Gilbert’s old-fashioned work ethic, his aggressive riding style and his tactical instincts (he doesn’t use a two-way radio, for instance).

By winning a second Tour of Lombardy last year, along with his first Amstel Gold Race and two stages of the Vuelta a España, the Omega-Lotto leader put himself alongside Fabian Cancellara as the world’s must successful classics rider. That designation was confirmed this past week by his wins at the Flèche Brabançonne (aka Brabantse Pijl) and Amstel Gold —and had he not flatted at a crucial point of the Tour of Flanders, he would likely have been in the breakaway with Cancellara and Sylvain Chavanel before the Mur de Grammont and maybe have beaten them in an eventual sprint finish.

2011 Amstel Gold Race. Joaquim Rodriguez attack
Joaquim Rodriguez attacks at Amstel Gold. Gilbert (the second Omega rider in this shot) would soon join him. Photo: Graham Watson

Gilbert’s expertise was on full show in the hills of Limburg last Sunday. He had strong support from Omega-Lotto teammate Jurgen Van Den Broeck (fifth place finisher at the 2010 Tour de France) in the key breakaway untilthe second-last climb; his faithful colleague Jelle Vanendert (who came with him from FDJ) led the chase after solo attacker Andy Schleck until he was exhausted — when Gilbert took over for 3km; and he smartly followed the counterattack by Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez up the steep Cauberg climb before catapulting to his second Amstel win in two years.

Gilbert is hoping that he can extend his superb form another few days to finally win Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He will again need the support of teammates Van Den Broeck and Vanendert and director De Wolf to counter the challenges that will undoubtedly come from Katusha and Schleck’s Leopard-Trek squad.

And if the hometown boy wins in Liège Sunday afternoon seven years after that first appearance, those fans in Remouchamps and on the Côte de La Redoute will go wild!

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.