GENT, Belgium (VN) — Philippe Gilbert is the toast of Belgium a day after his dramatic Ronde van Vlaanderen victory.
Headlines Monday morning regaled his long-distance sortie from 55 kilometers to go as “Merckxian,” and some effervescent scribes even went so far to characterize his victory as one of the “best Flanders ever.” There is some debate whether or not the chasing trio led by Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet might have caught him, but Gilbert hung on for one of his biggest wins of career. The W is his.
“It wasn’t until the final kilometers that I was sure I was going to win,” Gilbert said. “It wasn’t until the last finishing straight that I could look back and see I had a nice gap that I knew I would win.”
Literally moments after Gilbert popped the champagne bottles, speculation began to boil about one of cycling’s most prestigious and elusive challenges: winning all five of cycling’s historic monuments.
Only three men have won all five races — Milano-Sanremo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Giro di Lombardia — and all three were Belgian. Could the versatile and ambitious Gilbert, clearly back in his best form since 2011-12, make a run at the monument sweep?
“It’s always been a dream,” Gilbert demurred. “I have always been speaking about this for a long time, winning all the monuments.”
By any measure, winning all five is a huge challenge, made even more complicated in the modern era as riders are more specialized, the peloton becomes much deeper with talent, and the courses become even more demanding.
Winning all five also requires an old-school, all-round skillset that’s out of tune with today’s highly refined peloton adapted to power meters and earpiece racing. And there’s the diversity of the courses: Flanders and Roubaix are for the heavier cobble-bashers, while Liège and Lombardia favor explosive climbers. Sanremo is a lottery that typically favors the sprinters.
Could Gilbert do it? He’s been close before at Sanremo, with two times third, but he’s only raced Paris-Roubaix once in his entire career (57th in 2007). To win, you have to race.
“Finally, I won here in Flanders. It’s like I can make a cross on this one, it’s done,” Gilbert said. “I still have two to make with Roubaix and Milano-Sanremo, but the good thing is it’s not my last year, so I still have time in the future.”
On paper, Sanremo is the race that best suits his characteristics. He was twice third, but if he stays at Quick-Step Floors, he’ll be second in line behind sprinting protégé Fernando Gaviria. And Roubaix? Many think he’s too light and not experienced enough on the heavier, rougher French-styled pavé to be a serious contender for Roubaix.
He hasn’t raced the “Hell of the North” in a decade, but on Sunday, he Gilbert hedged on whether or not he might race next weekend. His focus is more centered on the Ardennes classics later this month, and with teammate Tom Boonen closing out his career on the cobbles at Roubaix, it would be hard to imagine a scenario where Gilbert comes out on top.
“I don’t know if I will race Roubaix,” he said. “We said we would discuss this after Flanders. Right now, I don’t even want to think about racing Roubaix!”
The monument club is perhaps cycling’s most elite. Belgium’s post-war superstar Rik Van Looy won a total of eight monuments during a run from 1958 to 1965. He was eclipsed by the arrival of Eddy Merckx, the only rider to win all five monuments multiple times, who racked up an untouchable total of 19 monuments in a decade-long span from 1966 to 1976. Roger De Vlaeminck won 11 monuments from 1970 to 1979, meaning he was a contemporary of Merckx, giving his palmares an even more impressive luster.
Five other riders won four monuments, with Irish legend Sean Kelly only missing out on Flanders, where he was painfully second on three occasions. Liège-Bastogne-Liège proved too much for four-time winners Hennie Kuiper and Louison Bobet. Lombardia was the crucible for Germain Derycke and Fred De Bruyne, each finishing second in the Italian climber’s classic.
In the modern era, multiple winners are proving to be rarer. Boonen has seven, but all those came at Flanders and Roubaix.
The now-retired Fabian Cancellara won across Sanremo, Flanders, and Roubaix for a total of seven, but the hills of Liège and Lombardia meant that talk of the monument sweep was little more than a mirage.
Among the younger riders, both Avermaet and Sagan seem to have the qualities to seriously contend for a monument sweep. Van Avermaet has yet to win even his first monument, and Sagan has won only one.
And with Gilbert turning 35 later this summer, it appears the “monument club” will remain the most exclusive in cycling.
Most monument victories among active riders
7 — Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors), 4x Roubaix, 3x Flanders
4 — Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), 2x Lombardia, 1x Liège, 1x Flanders
3 — Damiano Cunego (Nippo-Vini Fantini), 3x Lombardia
3 — Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), 3x Liège
2 — Simon Gerrans (Orica-Scott), 1x Sanremo, 1x Liège
2 — John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), 1x Sanremo, 1x Roubaix
2 — Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), 1x Sanremo, 1x Flanders
2 — Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors), 1x Lombardia, 1x Liège