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‘Project Roubaix:’ Gilbert’s unlikely road map to win cycling’s hardest race

They call it “Project Roubaix.” Inside Quick-Step Floors, it’s an ambitious plan to deliver Philippe Gilbert to victory in cycling’s hardest one-day race.

Gilbert’s audacious goal of completing the five-win sweep of cycling’s monuments depends on it. With Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix left on Gilbert’s career “to-do list,” this obsession will be the focus of the 35-year-old’s final chapter of his career.

Is it realistic for a rider who’s only raced Roubaix one time to win it within the next two years? Gilbert says why not at least try.

“I can adapt myself for different goals,” Gilbert said. “First I did climbing races, with Liege and Lombardy, and next I became more expert for the flat races. These races you need more power.”

That matter-of-fact reply defies Gilbert’s burning ambition to become just the fourth rider in cycling history to win all five monuments. In today’s highly specialized peloton, it’s almost unheard of for modern riders to try to win across the demands of the hillier classics (Liège and Lombardy), the pounding flats (Roubaix and Flanders), and the wildcard that is Sanremo.

Yet here he is, knocking on history’s door. And Quick-Step is ready to back him 100 percent.

“Project Roubaix” is a multi-step plan set out for the next two years. Quick-Step and Gilbert are well on their way of giving it a very good run.

Gilbert, 35, will return to Paris-Roubaix this spring for the first time since 2007 in what will be only his second career start on the punishing pavé. While Gilbert might be lacking in experience on the Roubaix route, he’s not lacking in ambition.

“It’s hard to say if I am going to go there and race for the win,” Gilbert said of his highly anticipated return to Roubaix. “I want to get some experience there and get stronger. Roubaix is such a special race. This team is the best team to be on if you have ambition in the classics. This is why I am here, and why I signed a new contract. I think we are experts of classics.”

Step 1: The right team for the job

The key to Gilbert’s run at Roubaix was his decision in the summer of 2016 to make a phone call. Picking up the other end of the line was Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere. Gilbert made a proposition.

“I’ve known Philippe since he was 12 years old, but we could never work out a deal,” Lefevere said. “One day he called me and said, ‘I want to race for you.’ I replied that it would be a short negotiation, ‘I don’t have money to pay you.’ He said it wasn’t a question of money but of ambition. He wanted to win Flanders, Roubaix, and Sanremo, and he said we were the only team who could help him win them.”

Lefevere then asked Gilbert how much he wanted to get paid, who quickly countered with a price and a bonus structure. Lefevere came back with an offer via email at 11 p.m.

“At eight in the morning, he called back and said, ‘We have a deal,’” he said. “It was the shortest and most sincere negotiation of my career.”

Lefevere didn’t reveal the price, but word on the street was that it was a relatively modest salary for Gilbert’s star power, but a deal packed with bonuses. After Gilbert’s dramatic Flanders victory in 2017, he signed a two-year deal to race through 2019 with Lefevere.

“I was ready for a change,” Gilbert said. “I was five years [at BMC Racing], and I had a good experience, but I wanted to change teams. That’s why I contacted Patrick one and a half years ago. I think I made the right decision, and it’s the right choice for the future.”

Step 2: Training

Roubaix is dramatically different than just about anything Gilbert has raced in his career. Known for his explosive power and racing acumen, Gilbert naturally shined in the Ardennes. It was no coincidence that his worlds win came on the Cauberg, the singular climbing finale of Amstel Gold Race, which he’s won four times.

To prepare for Roubaix, Gilbert has thrown out the training manual he’s used for most of his career. Instead of explosiveness and top-end speed, he’s building pure power. To win Roubaix, Gilbert has to imagine a 60-minute time trial on the worst roads in Europe.

“The weight is same, it’s more of a difference in the training,” Gilbert said of Roubaix. “[Roubaix is] all about power.”

Another factor will be his in-house rivals. With Tom Boonen no longer in the frame, Zdenek Stybar and Niki Terpstra are both keen to fill the void. Gilbert knows he will have to earn his spot as Roubaix leader, and that means proving it in training and in early-season results.

“If you are the best on Quick-Step, you have a good chance of winning,” he said. “We have a rivalry, but in a good way. We are always pushing each other.”

That’s one race Gilbert needs to win before the real race even begins.

Step 3: Cobblestone recon

“Project Roubaix” has many wrinkles. It’s unusual for any rider to win Roubaix in their second outing, so Gilbert needs to make up for lost time. That means training and studying the Roubaix route.

“The last time I raced Roubaix was 11 years ago. We talk a lot about [how hard Roubaix is], but it’s not that bad,” he said. “Like every classic, you finish empty.”

Gilbert will be able to lean on the experience and classics knowledge that comes with the Quick-Step staff and riders. Perhaps more than any team in the peloton, Quick-Step lives and dies by its results each spring. The team’s staff is loaded with decades of experience. Gilbert will be counting on the sport directors, mechanics, soigneurs, and trainers to bring him to the start line with real chances to win.

Gilbert said he won’t need more than the traditional pre-Roubaix recon to familiarize himself with the full route, but he will be hitting key sectors of pavé over the next few weeks to test equipment.

“Can Gilbert win Roubaix? Of course he can,” said Quick-Step sport director Rik van Slyke. “Gilbert is a big champion, and even though he might not have too much experience at Roubaix, he knows how to win big races. That will help him a lot.”

Step 4: Racing the pavé

Gilbert will be a relative Roubaix newbie when he lines up in Compiegne this year. Doing just one Roubaix among his 47 career monument appearances reveals how much he avoided racing Roubaix in the past.

He said the main reason he steered clear of Roubaix over the years was to avoid possible injury before the important Ardennes week. In 2011, he swept the Ardennes calendar.

Last year, he skipped Roubaix again despite winning big at Flanders. Many felt he could have won Roubaix, but he decided to take aim at the Ardennes treble one last time.

“It was my choice [to skip Roubaix] because I really believed I had the legs to win the three [Ardennes] races like I did a few years ago,” he said. “That’s why I decided to stop after Flanders and take a rest before Amstel. I had really trained for the climbing.”

This year, he’s so committed to “Project Roubaix” that it’s likely he won’t even race the Ardennes. It’s a decision the team will make as the classics unfold.

“They don’t need me on this team [to race the Ardennes], because they have many other guys,” he said. “I know Julian [Alaphilippe] will be there and Bob [Jungels] for the Ardennes. If I am there, it’s a bonus. And in the Flemish races, it’s the same.”

Step 5: Winning (Gilbert hopes)

It’s one thing to start; it’s quite something else to win.

The last Liège winner to win Roubaix was Sean Kelly in the late 1980s, so it’s been a while. Gilbert is entering uncharted territory. He knows a puncture or a crash could derail everything in an instant. He also knows that if he’s in great form and has a bit of luck, he could be in the frame for the win.

“Everyone knows that I dream of winning Sanremo and Roubaix, and completing my palmares with these two monuments,” Gilbert said. “Having them in my sights gives me a fresh motivation.”

Only three riders — Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, and Rik Van Looy — have managed to pull it off. With his dramatic Flanders win last year, Gilbert is closer than anyone’s been in decades.

Of course, if he wins Roubaix, there is still Milano-Sanremo. Of that race, Gilbert quipped, “It cannot be that hard to win. Merckx won it seven times.”

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