He may be no Eddy Merckx, but Philippe Gilbert has a chance to cap what has been a golden spring classics campaign for divided Belgium’s kings of cycling with victory in Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Liège, the oldest one-day classic on the calendar, brings an end to the spring classics season and is also the third and final in the “Ardennes Classics” trilogy after the Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne.
Gilbert, who rides for Belgium’s number two team, Omega-Pharma, won Amstel last Sunday and stunned more suited rivals to win Flèche Wallonne in midweek.
With a series of one-week stages races set to take centre stage leading up to the Giro d’Italia next month, Belgium’s success rate may be about to dip as they have few stage racing specialists.
But what a classics campaign it has been for the divided country, which is still reeling from the lack of a government.
Tom Boonen, a former winner of Paris-Roubaix (three times) and the Tour of Flanders (twice) grabbed a surprise win at Ghent-Wevelgem in March.
Belgian compatriot Nick Nuyens then stunned race favorite Fabian Cancellara to win the Tour of Flanders.
A week later, another Flemish-speaking Belgian, Johan Van Summeren, silenced a host of bigger contenders to claim victory at Paris-Roubaix.
The following week, it was the turn of French-speaking Gilbert to join the party, winning the Flèche Brabanconne semi-classic three days before his victory at the Amstel Gold Race in the Netherlands.
For many, his victory at the Flèche Wallonne semi-classic in midweek means he is the overriding favorite for Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the penultimate of the five cycling ‘monuments’.
Italian Gianni Bugno, runner-up at Liège in 1995, believes Gilbert ─ already a two-time winner of the fifth monument, the Tour of Lombardy (2009, 2010) ─ can become a classics giant.
“For me it’s simple, he can win them all. Certainly Liège-Bastogne-Liège because he has the two main ingredients: power and endurance,” he told Belgian daily La Derniere Heure.
Known since the early days of his career for his attacking prowess, it has taken Gilbert several years to hone his physique, racing skills and sense of tactics.
Occasionally, he gets it wrong ─ like at last year’s world championships when, despite great form, he launched a futile solo attack several kilometres from the line where Norwegian Thor Hushovd triumphed.
A long solo attack at Flanders earlier this month also left the Belgian off the podium.
However Gilbert’s fearless approach to racing, as well as his outspoken views on doping, have won him many fans.
Retired Italian specialist Paolo Bettini, the former world and Olympic champion who won a string of big one-day races, added: “He’s got that little something extra, and that’s what will one day make him a bigger rider than I ever was.
“He will win Tour of Flanders one day, for sure. I didn’t manage it. But one day he will have a bigger honors list than me.”