CALPE, Spain (VN) — It’s been 11 years, but now the time has come for Philippe Gilbert to return to “Hell of the North.”
Hot off winning Tour of Flanders last year, Gilbert is raising the bar in his quest to join cycling’s elusive “five-win” club. To do that, he needs to head back to Paris-Roubaix.
With victories at Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Giro di Lombardia already on his palmares, the Quick-Step Floors rider is now taking aim at Milano-Sanremo and Roubaix. If he can pull it off, he’ll become just the fourth rider in history to win all five of cycling’s monuments.
“It’s a big motivation for me,” Gilbert said Tuesday at a Quick-Step camp. “Even if it’s a crazy dream, it’s possible. This gives me so much motivation.”
To have a chance, he’ll need to race Roubaix. Gilbert avoided the perils of the Roubaix pavé in part because he didn’t want to risk a season-ending injury. The last time, and only time, he raced Roubaix was in 2007, finishing an uninspiring 52nd. At 35, he knows time is running out.
“It’s hard to say if I am going to go there and race for the win,” he said. “I want to get some experience there and get stronger. Roubaix is such a special race.”
The monument “grand slam” is one of cycling’s most prestigious and most elusive goals. The five one-day races are among cycling’s longest, most difficult, and most prestigious titles. Winning all five is not easy. Only three riders — Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, and Rik Van Looy — have managed to pull it off.
Perhaps more than any rider in the contemporary peloton, Gilbert has the skillset to seriously make a challenge. Lombardia and Liège, two races he’s already won, require climbing skills, while Sanremo is a sprinter’s race. Flanders and Roubaix are tilted more in favor of brawny cobble-bashers.
Of his remaining two monuments, he’s had more success in Italy’s Sanremo, twice finishing third. Despite his distant finish at Roubaix 11 years ago, he senses Sanremo will be the hardest to win.
“Sanremo is not easy to make something happen,” he said. “You see sometimes a rider like Sagan, who is the strongest there, and he can still lose it. It’s the same in Liège or Roubaix. If you’re the strongest at the start, you have the best chance to win.”
Many scoff at his ambitions. Roubaix is a beast only tamed by the brawniest of the pack, while Sanremo is a sprinter’s race, and even Gilbert admits that his fastest days are behind him. But Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere said it’s wrong to count out Gilbert at Sanremo.
“Who’s to say it’s going to be a perfectly sunny day in March?” Lefevere said. “Who’s to say it won’t be windy and rainy? Philippe is one of the most experienced riders in the peloton. He will look for an opening.”
Gilbert even joked about his chances at Sanremo, telling Belgian TV, “Everyone says Sanremo is so hard to win, but Merckx won it seven times.”
Gilbert altered his training to build his power for Roubaix. He even hinted that he would not race the Ardennes classics, where he won the treble in 2011, to approach the northern classics in absolute top condition this spring.
“First I did climbing races, with Liège and Lombardy, and I became more expert for the flat races where you need more power,” he said. “It’s a new challenge for me, and it keeps me motivated.”
Gilbert is taking on the monument challenge as the final act of his glorious career. He’s done just about everything else a rider of his caliber can imagine doing. He’s won the world title, stages in all three grand tours, four monuments, four Amstel Gold Race titles, and a dozen other major races.
Gilbert is on a two-year deal with Quick-Step and said he won’t contemplate retirement until after the 2019 season. After his run at BMC Racing, he reached out to Quick-Step’s Lefevere midway through 2016 about joining the Belgian team.
“This is the best team to race if you want to win the classics,” Gilbert said. “They race like I race. They are very aggressive. I am very happy here.”
Gilbert’s Flanders win last year was one of the most exciting of the entire year. With a long-distance attack, Gilbert delivered his first major win since his 2012 world title. And what does he think when former teammate Greg Van Avermaet said if he and Sagan had not crashed they could have caught Gilbert for the win?
“I don’t care about what he says,” Gilbert said with a laugh. “The winner is always right.”