A cancer scare a year ago is fueling newfound ambitions for Belgian attacker Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) heading into this year’s classics campaign. At the beginning of the 2007 season, the 25-year-old was alarmed by the sudden appearance of any ugly black mole on his left leg and immediately went to the doctor. Before he knew it, he was hustled into surgery not knowing whether or not he’d ever race again.

By Andrew Hood

Gilbert, last month in Mallorca
Gilbert, last month in Mallorca

Photo: Andrew Hood

A cancer scare a year ago is fueling newfound ambitions for Belgian attacker Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) heading into this year’s classics campaign.

At the beginning of the 2007 season, the 25-year-old was alarmed by the sudden appearance of any ugly black mole on his left leg and immediately went to the doctor. Before he knew it, he was hustled into surgery not knowing whether or not he’d ever race again.

“The doctor said I should have it removed and I lost 10 days after surgery waiting to hear the results,” Gilbert told VeloNews. “Thankfully, it wasn’t melanoma. That is the most dangerous cancer. It was very scary.”

Melanoma is one of the deadliest forms of cancer and there’s been a recent spike of several high-profile cases among the peloton. Cyclists can be especially susceptible to the cancer after spending hours a day training and racing under the glaring sun.

Magnus Bäckstedt (Slipstream-Chipotle) had a cancerous melanoma successfully removed from his chest in 2006. American racer Amber Neben had a tumor removed from her back following last year’s world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, and is also enjoying a full recovery.

Early detection is key and Gilbert is thankful he quickly followed up with a doctor’s visit when he discovered the suspicious growth.

“Cyclists must be more aware because we are all day under the sun,” Gilbert said. “With the pollution and the ozone, the sun is stronger and more dangerous. I am using more sun screen than before.”

Gilbert, one of the few top Belgian riders hailing from the French-speaking Wallonia region, admitted the cancer scare threw him off during his 2007 campaign.

Following success in a five-win 2006 campaign capped by victory in the season-long French Cup series, he only managed one victory in 2007 that didn’t come until August.

“It was very scary. I’m okay now and back to full health,” he said. “I have regular surveillance of my skin now.”

Gilbert says the brush with cancer is giving him extra inspiration coming into 2008 campaign. The fruits of that newfound motivation were on clear display at the Mallorca Challenge earlier this month.

Gilbert uncorked one of his classic late-stage attacks to surprise the sprinters in stage 1 and then won again in stage 3 despite sending José Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne) into the barriers. He won the unofficial overall prize after fending off attacks from Toni Colom (Astana) and Aitor Perez (Extremadura-Spiuk).

It was Gilbert’s first stage-race victory of his career marked by random stages and one-day classics.

“The success in Mallorca bodes well for my spring season. I will try to be at my best for the important races this season,” Gilbert said. “I dream of winning one of the big races, Milan-San Remo or Liège. Since I live only 30 kilometers from Liège, that is my dream since a child.”

Since turning pro in 2003, Gilbert has attracted a lot of attention in the Belgian media, especially in the French-speaking eastern half of Belgium. Most successful Belgian riders hail from Flanders in western Belgium.

This year, Gilbert is more ambitious than ever.

First, he will focus on the Ardennes classics before taking a break and reloading for the Tour de France. He’ll stay busy with slated appearances in the Summer Olympic Games, the Vuelta a España and the world championships.

His ability of uncork daring attacks in the decisive late stages of races will remain his favored tactic.

“My problem is that I can sprint well, but not fast enough to beat the likes of Bettini, Freire or Bennati,” he said. “So I must try my luck with some well-timed attacks. Last year at Milan-San Remo, we were only caught with just less than one kilometer to go. That’s what I have to do to try to win one of the big races. It doesn’t work very often, but when it does, it’s quite beautiful.”