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From the pages of Velo: The 2011 Velo Awards – Cyclist of the Year

There was no stopping Philippe Gilbert this season. He went on a tear that no one’s seen since the days of Eddy Merckx.

Editor’s note: This is VeloNews.com’s final selection from the January 2012 edition of Velo, the magazine’s 24th annual awards issue. Our selections were only a sampler — so if you want the full scoop, pick up a copy of the January 2012 edition of Velo.

There was no stopping Philippe Gilbert this season. The 29-year-old Belgian went on a tear that no one’s seen since the days of Eddy Merckx.

After blowing through the spring classics and claiming the rare Ardennes triple, Gilbert barreled into the Tour de France wearing a new Belgian champion’s jersey — which he promptly traded for the maillot jaune on stage 1.

Gilbert’s engine knows no limit. After racing in daily criteriums following the Tour, he blasted to victory in the hilly Clásica San Sebastián, his ninth career major one-day classic. And he did it on six hours of sleep.

Gilbert jumped on a private jet, just moments after racing in a Belgian criterium, (where Tour champion Cadel Evans “beat” him) and flew toward Spain. The local airport was already closed by the time his flight arrived and Gilbert was rerouted to Vitoria, more than one hour away by car.

He didn’t hit his hotel until 2 a.m., but was up six hours later and at the start line at 11 a.m. Another six hours on, Gilbert soloed home to an impressive victory to confirm, yet again, that he has indeed broken the mold.

Gilbert mathematically sewed up the WorldTour No. 1 ranking in September, in Québec City. The 50 WorldTour points he earned two days later in Montréal, where he won the field sprint for third, were just icing on the cake, and after a trans-Atlantic flight home on September 12, he went on to win the September 14 GP de Wallonie.

“I was aware of what I did, I always enjoyed every moment, so for me, it was a waking dream that I had for the past nine months,” Gilbert said in Canada. “It’s really something extraordinary; all those moments will remain in my memory for life and in my supporters’ memories.

“I think that I really surpassed a level this year. Last year was a great season, but this year was really a ‘saison de grand cru’. It’s really something superb.”

In a year where the classics delivered one surprise after another, Gilbert’s Ardennes sweep of Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège seemed almost inevitable. When he dumped Andy and Fränk Schleck to realize his boyhood dream of winning Liège, Gilbert became just the second rider, after Davide Rebellin, to sweep the three hilly classics — and the first to add Brabantse Pijl, for four wins in 12 days.

But he also took honors at Montepaschi Strade Bianche, Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec and GP de Wallonie, and finished in the top 10 at Milan-San Remo (third), the Tour of Flanders (ninth), Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal (third) and the Tour of Lombardy (eighth).

Add to that both the Belgian national road and time trial titles and Gilbert took wins on 16 days, or an astounding 25 percent of the days he pinned on a number.

And it wasn’t just that Gilbert won so frequently, but it was how he won. Heading into Liège-Bastogne-Liège, everyone knew he would be at the front of the race on the Roche aux Faucons. The question wasn’t if, or when, he would attack; it was simply whether anyone could follow him. He was on the streak of a lifetime, having won three races in 11 days, but La Doyenne, passing 10km from his hometown, was the one he valued most.

Andy Schleck was first to take the race by the throat on the Faucons. Brother Fränk jumped after him, and Gilbert was soon isolated against the Leopard duo. The big Belgian was a gorilla between the two sprightly Schlecks, and he acted like it. Gilbert controlled the group with little visible effort and the three rode to the finish in Ans seemingly resigned to the inevitable.

The world’s best classics rider had the Schlecks beaten mentally and physically, and after Andy lodged a half-hearted attack on the Côte de Saint Nicolas, Gilbert’s final sprint was a forgone conclusion. Fränk later called him “unbeatable.” Gilbert would take the biggest win of his career, his wife and infant son waiting beyond the finish. He would call it the “most beautiful day” of his sporting life.

The 34 days between April 24 and May 28 were the longest span between Gilbert triumphs — and served as a well-deserved break from racing after a long, fruitful spring. Gilbert’s stage win and overall victory at the Tour of Belgium continued a streak that carried the Walloon to July 2 without losing a one-day event or stage race in which he competed.

By the midpoint of the Tour de France, the European media had begun pushing Gilbert, who sat inside the top 10, as a potential GC rider. Merckx, whose five-year run in the early 1970’s was the last to match Gilbert’s 2011 magnum opus, said he hoped Gilbert would one day contend for the Tour overall.

“It is difficult to compare different epochs. Let’s just say that Philippe is one of the best riders in his time,” Merckx told French daily L’Avenir in July. “Thanks to his temperament, I wish him to become better than Merckx and one day win the Tour.”

Gilbert remained grounded, however, and the man who greets fans and journalists freely on the steps of the team bus leaves 2011 with his eyes set squarely on completing his classics palmarès. Contending in a three-week race would be too risky for the wholesale changes to his training it would require.

“What is better, to go for the GC, sacrifice the classics, and finish sixth or seventh or eighth? Or is it better to focus on what I am good at? I am good at winning one-day races. That’s what I am made for,” said Gilbert.

“I wouldn’t want to give up the success of the classics for the Tour. It’s a big risk with little payback. Maybe after I win all the classics, perhaps I can focus on something else later on in my career. But first, my dream is to win the world championship.”

What’s sure is that Gilbert is far from finished. A somewhat turbulent transfer from Omega Pharma to BMC Racing will place him alongside classics riders Thor Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie and Taylor Phinney in 2012.

Without question, a win at the Tour of Flanders in the Belgian national champion’s kit would be a career-defining moment. A two-time winner at the Tour of Lombardy, Gilbert has openly admitted that he hopes to win all five monuments.

“For me, there are three big races left to win — Milan- San Remo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix,” Gilbert said. “I’d like to also wear the pink jersey at the Giro. I won a stage in each of the grand tours, I wore the leader’s jersey at the Vuelta and at the Tour de France and I would like to wear the Giro d’Italia pink jersey. That would also be something exceptional. There are a lot of dreams left, they motivate me and help me progress.”

If Gilbert wants to win Milan-San Remo, the cobbled classics and a world championship, we see nothing standing in his way. He showed us in 2011 that no matter how closely he is marked, or how much pressure lies on his shoulders, he is, by far, the Cyclist of the Year for 2011 — and perhaps the cyclist of an era.