Belgium hails Philippe Gilbert’s historic ride

The dust is settling on Philippe Gilbert’s extraordinary week, but the Belgians are still celebrating the historic Ardennes sweep.

The dust is settling on Philippe Gilbert’s extraordinary week, but the Belgians are still celebrating the historic Ardennes sweep.

Thousands of friends and families gave Gilbert a hero’s welcome at his hometown of Remouchamps on Monday. The champion enjoyed his first beer in weeks and said “it will take a few days for all this to sink in.”

Gilbert is the toast of Belgium, and his dramatic victory Sunday against the Schleck brothers is earning him accolades across the linguistic divide of the small, but cycling-crazed nation. Newspapers and TV channels in both the French-speaking Wallonne and Dutch-speaking Flanders agree that Gilbert is one of their own.

“The King enters his kingdom,” wrote La Meuse. “Phil is unstoppable,” wrote Het Nieuwsblat.

Belgian TV channel called 2011 the “year of the Belgian,” pointing out that Belgian riders won six of seven major spring classics, with only Aussie Matt Goss breaking the Belgian supremacy at Milan-San Remo. The others — from Ghent-Wevelgem to the cobblestones to Gilbert’s Ardennes sweep — have all been won by Belgians.

Even Tom Boonen, who has been the top Belgian dog since he won his first of three Paris-Roubaix titles in 2005, chimed in: “Gilbert is Belgium’s new star.”

Gilbert realized a lifelong dream by winning La Doyenne. He was raised in Remouchamps, just at the base of the Le Redoute climb, and becomes the first Belgian winner since Frank Vandenbroucke in 1999.

“Sunday was the best day of my sporting career,” Gilbert said after the win. “I always dreamed of winning Liège. The legs responded when they had to. This week has been like a dream.”

Gilbert not only becomes the first rider since Davide Rebellin 2004 to sweep Amstel Gold-Flèche-Liège in the same week, he made it even one better, winning Brabantse Pijl on April 13 to open his four-race winning streak. Add victories Monte Paschi Strade Bianchi and stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and Volta ao Algarve and it’s no surprise that Gilbert climbed to the top of the latest UCI rankings.

What’s next for Gilbert? He’ll return to the Tour de France this year for the first time since 2008, where he will try to win a stage and grab the yellow jersey.

Eddy Merckx even suggests that Gilbert should aim for more than just a few stage wins, telling Sporza he could go further.

“He’s strong, not only physically but also mentally, but the pressure this week should not be underestimated,” Merckx said. “Gilbert is rewarded for his hard work. He lives 100 percent for his sport and knows what he can and cannot do. He is an example for everyone. He’s a more complete rider than Tom Boonen. Gilbert can win all types of races. He’s 28, and he’s reached his absolute peak. If he’s lighter and dedicated himself to the high mountains, I think he could ride a good Tour. I think it would be possible.”

More immediate goals are winning Tour of Flanders and the world title. This year’s course in Denmark doesn’t suit him, but the 2012 course across the Limburg region suits him perfectly. That’s where he’s won two Amstel Gold Races in a row. A rainbow seems a fitting goal for the man known by his compatriots as “Phil.”