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Race science with Philippe Gilbert: Looking back on his Paris-Roubaix masterpiece

When it comes to bike racing tactics no one is better than Belgian veteran Philippe Gilbert.

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When it comes to bike racing tactics no one is better than Belgian veteran Philippe Gilbert. It is his combination of race science and sheer strength which have helped him bag no less than four monuments. But one of his most satisfying to date remains his last—the 2019 Paris-Roubaix. There will be no Roubaix this Sunday, but VeloNews caught up with Gilbert to analyze his brilliant victory in the Roubaix velodrome just one year ago.

VeloNews: Philippe, in normal times, this would be Paris-Roubaix weekend. We decided to look back on some great editions, and while yours was the most recent, it was also one that was outstanding on a number of levels. First, there is the way in which you won it. And secondly, because, well, for a lot of people you were not an obvious Roubaix winner. I mean, you built your reputation in the Ardennes classics and I think this was only your third attempt at Roubaix. You had raced it once as a young professional, and then just the year previous to your win.

Philippe Gilbert: Yeah I think people just saw me doing so many different things before.

VN: Well in a sense, your victory last year can be divided into two parts. First the lessons you learned from 2018. And then how you turned those lessons into victory just a year later.

PG: Yeah exactly. In 2018, I was going well, but even if I had done a lot of recons and watched the race on TV a lot, at one point I was a bit lost. I just didn’t have enough experience. But in 2019, I knew exactly where I was at any point in the race. As a result, I was more relaxed and more confident, and that just made a huge difference.

In addition, in 2018, it was quite warm and I missed a couple of bottles. Going into the Arenberg Forest I only had a little bit of water left in one bottle, and then nothing for like 20 kilometers. One time the soigneur or mechanic didn’t see me. Another time a teammate was just in front of me. And another, the guy was on the left, something, you don’t normally do. So for like 20 kilometers—like between the Arenberg and Orchies—I went without drinking. I overheated. I had to slow down a little bit to recover, and my race was over.

Gilbert and Polit
Photo: James Startt

VN: Well you obviously learned some lessons. What did you do differently in 2019?

PG: Well, for one I did more recons. I probably went up and rode those roads five or six times before the race. And also I watched the race a lot on TV, a lot of the previous editions, which is also a kind of recon. As a result I just had more experience in the legs and in the head. I was more confident.

VN: Talk us through 2019 a bit.

PG: Well, I think we have to start from the beginning. First it was really cold, almost freezing, at the start, and there was a really strong headwind. In conditions like that, you know you are going to burn a lot of energy. The race started full gas as everyone wanted to be in the breakaway. We were riding like 50-kilometers an hour for the first two hours, but the breakaway didn’t form because of the headwind. I was following so many moves, maybe 15 times because I really wanted to be in the break. I really thought that with the headwind, I would actually be able to save energy in the breakaway, because, you are just more relaxed. But at one point I had to pee so bad, and after two hours I thought that it was now or never, because once we hit the cobbles there would be no chance. And that is when the group got away. I had been trying to get in that group for two hours, and that was the moment a group finally got away. I was so pissed! I had made so many efforts for nothing. And I really thought that the group would go.

VN: Wow, you had been trying to take the initiative all morning, and suddenly once you hit the first cobbles, you are on the defensive!

PG: Yeah, it was a big group of like 25 riders, but fortunately there were a couple of teams that were not in the break. I think Bora had no one, and then on one of the first sections Matteo Trentin — who was in the break — had a flat tire, so his Mitchelton-Scott team started chasing too. As a result, more and more teams started riding behind and the gap stayed at like one minute, or one-minute-thirty maximum, so I was more relaxed.

But then just as the break came back, there was a big crash, and I was caught behind the split. I was the only guy from Deceuninck–Quick-Step behind, so I couldn’t really chase. But fortunately there were several teams that had to chase like Groupama-FDJ and Bora. They pulled full-gas, so it came back again. All of this happened before the Arenberg!

VN: Wow! And we often say that the race doesn’t even start until the Arenberg!

PG: Yeah, and really only the strongest guys made it back to the front group, maybe ten of us. I looked back and realized that there were only maybe 80 guys left in the group, and we still had 150 kilometers of racing! Already there was a big selection, and at that point I knew it was just best to relax and stay in the pack because, there was just no way a break could get away again considering the headwinds. But I knew that after the Arenberg, the course changed directions a lot, and there were some sections with crosswinds, and I knew that, even if it was still a long way, I need to attack there.

Gilbert leads Polit
Photo: James Startt

VN: Yeah there are a series of sections that are very exposed, Warlaing, Tilloy, etcetera.

PG: Yeah the road is just going right-left, right-left all the time. So it is tailwind-crosswind, tailwind-crosswind, tailwind-crosswind, before hitting a headwind later. So I knew that that was a moment where I had to attack. Even if it was still a long way, but I knew I had to go there. I followed a couple of attacks and then right around the feed zone, just before Orchies, we got away. It was a crucial point in the race (65km from the finish), and I knew that if we could gain an advantage there, it would be a real advantage. I got away with Nils Politt, who is just a beast, and Rudiger Selig. We had a 45- or 50-second gap so I knew that we had everything under control because nobody could bridge up alone. At one point, I heard on the radio that Wout Van Aert was leading the chase and I said to the guys that we needed to speed up. Selig dropped and I even dropped Politt, but I was feeling good, so I just went alone.

VN: But you didn’t stay away and at one point a very good group came back including Peter Sagan, Van Aert, Politt, Sep Vanmarcke, and your teammate Yves Lampaert. Now Sagan, may not have been at his very, very best in the classics last year, but he was the defending champion, and he is Peter Sagan. Did you worry at all that you had spent too much energy too early?

PG: No, no! I knew that we had done a perfect job, Politt and myself. We didn’t go too hard really, but I knew that they had gone really hard to catch back on. I looked at their faces and I could tell that they had gone really deep. So I really felt that I was in a good position. Both Sagan and Lampaert were really attacking on every turn, hoping to force a gap.

Gilbert and Polit on cobbles
Photo: James Startt

VN: You know it is not everybody finds themselves in a breakaway with Peter Sagan, and can tell that he is tired. How could you tell?

PG: Well with two Deceunincks, I knew that Peter was not in a good position. That is why he kept trying to attack. But I also knew that, if he was really good, he would have managed to get away with at least one of us and been able to isolate us. That is what I would have tried to do in his situation. But he didn’t do it because he couldn’t do it.

VN: I think there were five of you going into the Carrefour de l’Arbre, which is always such a key section.

PG: Yeah, well already I had attacked just after the section in Cysoing, and the group caught me again just before the Carrefour de l’Arbre. I knew that, just after the cobbles in Cysoing there was a good moment to surprise everyone, so I went really hard. But it was my first big, big attack in over an hour. I just went full gas, but with the cold, it was really hard, it almost hurt to breathe. But I attacked twice and the second time, I was able to split the group. Sagan came with me along with Politt, but Lampaert and Vanmarcke came back just before the Carrefour de l’Arbre. At that point I understood that we would go into the Carrefour together. But I was still feeling good, so I wasn’t nervous.

I remember at one point just before we go into the Carrefour, the team said on the radio, to get behind Lampaert and then let him just open a gap. But I just said, “No way!” There is no way I was going to do that so late in the race! “There is no way I will do that!” I mean, I just would have regretted doing that all my life. Sure, I like to do what the team asks. This year we are on different teams. I just would have always regretted such a move.

Anyway, Yves went into the Carrefour really hard. I was on the back of the group, but I just waited for a moment when the speed dropped, just a bit. And then I attacked.

Sagan and Gilbert at the 2019 Paris-Roubaix
Photo: James Startt

VN: Yes it was just before the long, straight stretch that goes past the old café. You went up the side, pretty much on the gutter. It was a sweet move to watch. But Sagan still followed!

PG: Yeh, but not exactly. He wasn’t right on my wheel. He was like two meters behind and the wind was coming from the side, and if you understand cycling, you know that there is a huge difference from being on the wheel and being two meters behind. It’s night and day. He was doing the same effort as me, and so I knew that was a good point to go even harder.

VN: But still you are together coming out of the Carrefour.

PG: Yeah, coming out of the Carrefour there was another stretch of headwind. I could see that everyone was on their limit, so I just waited for someone to make a move and then followed. Politt went. I let him get a little gap at first and then I just went, and bridged across. I came back really fast and realized that we would stay away.

VN: Well you come into the Velodrome with Politt. Anybody who has money at that point puts it on Philippe Gilbert. But did you ever worry, however, that a velodrome sprint after more than 250 kilometers, could be different?

PG: Hmm, well I just really remained focused. I told myself that, I had done the hardest to get into that position. And now I just had to finish the job! I said to myself that this was the first time I was in such a position in Roubaix. And it might be my last. I just didn’t want to miss it.

Gilbert and Polit in the Roubaix velodrome
Photo: James Startt

VN: What was it like coming across the line?

PG: It was just a huge emotion. It was one more monument, and I was coming that much closer to my dream of winning all five monuments.

VN: Looking back, you have now won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Lombardy, Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix, four of cycling’s greatest races. Can you compare Roubaix to the others?

PG: Oh, winning Roubaix was just very special because of the way the race unfolded and the way I raced myself. I am really proud of that victory. I think I made the race that day. I raced aggressively and I turned it in my favor. It didn’t come easily. I really had to do everything to turn the race into my favor.

Philippe Gilbert posts up
Photo: James Startt