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ZOTTEGEM, Belgium (VN) — Philippe Gilbert is an endangered species in pro cycling. It is rare that a rider can win in both the cobbled classics and the Ardennes.
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Gilbert rode alone from the Quick-Step team bus in Zottegem Wednesday morning ahead of the second stage of Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. The Belgian champion, winner of stage 1 at the Flemish stage race, already counts all three Ardennes classics in his palmarès. If he wins the biggest cobbled classic, the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, it would be quite rare.
“Only a few can ride both the cobbles and Ardennes, and one is Phil,” team sport director Rik Van Slycke told VeloNews. “A few before, like Paolo Bettini were a little the same. He rode the Flanders races and could win Liège-Bastogne-Liège.”
Italian Michele Bartoli last managed in the 1990s to win a cobbled monument (Tour of Flanders 1996) and the Ardennes monument, Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1997. Around that same time, Rolf Sorensen won Liège in 1993 and Flanders in 1997. Ireland’s Sean Kelly did so as well, winning both Paris-Roubaix and Liège in 1984.
Gilbert, 34, followed an odd path to reach this point. After placing third in Flanders twice, he focused strictly on the Ardennes classics. His peak shifted away from the cobbled classics, from late March through early April and to the Ardennes in the south, later in April. He last raced a full cobbled campaign in 2012.
He won the Amstel Gold Race in 2010, 2011, and 2014, and all three Ardennes classics — Amstel, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège — in 2011.
BMC Racing took him to the Ardennes classics instead of the cobbled ones because it had an improving Greg Van Avermaet who needed his space. After five years, Gilbert wanted to switch.
“He is motivated now. He’s in the tricolor [Belgian champion’s] jersey and wants to show he’s still good and useful. A few said that he’s getting old and is not motivated,” continued Van Slycke. “That’s why he made the choice to come to team Quick-Step. He said, ‘If I go there, I can do what I want to do.’ He wanted to ride the cobbled classics. We made a spot for him.”
Team boss Patrick Lefevere stood behind the team’s blue and white bus. He had just finished an interview with the local television broadcaster.
“[Gilbert] switched to the Ardennes in the second part of his life, but now he is back where he belongs,” Lefevere said. “I don’t think it’s that rare for a rider to perform well in both of them. Besides, he’s been coming to Flanders to race since he was 15.”
Lefevere first scouted Gilbert and the country’s other top star Tom Boonen in their junior years. They were “unfortunately” in the same age bracket as his son when he raced as a 13- to 15-year-old so he would see them regularly in the weekend races.
“It’s a mentality switch for Phil. But if a rider loves and lives on the cobbles, you adapt, and if you don’t, or you don’t try them, then you fall behind. It’s as simple as that.”
We may no longer see riders like Gilbert in cycling due to the changes the organizers are making to their courses.
“It’s harder to do well in both because the Ardennes are becoming harder and more suited to the GC riders, 60kg riders like Alejandro Valverde, Julian Alaphilippe, Wout Poels …” Lefevere continued.
“The others like Gilbert, who could win the race before are a little excluded. It’s not smart for organizations to make these new parcours because many riders say, ‘What can I do in Liège now? We can’t win, so we don’t race.'”
Gilbert only has a contract through 2017, but Quick-Step could keep him on to replace Boonen as a mentor to its young riders.
Van Slycke added, “For the future, you have to look to Alaphilippe, Gaviria, and Bob Jungels. But you still need the experience of Tom, Phil and the champions.”
“This has always been a motivation for me, yeah. I wasn’t always allowed to do it in the past and now I’m happy to be on the start,” Gilbert said of his first Ronde start in five years. “When you join this team, you hear the words Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix like 50 times a day! Everyone is speaking about this, the riders are always are talking about it. Other teams only talk about the Tour de France, but here’s about the classics. It’s in the DNA of the team.”