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Q&A Philippe Gilbert on farewell spring: ‘I want to give everything in the classics’

'It was easy to decide to retire:' Belgian star isn't feeling nostalgic yet, and brings big ambitions into his 20th and final season in the pro peloton.

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Philippe Gilbert lines up Saturday at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in what’s his final spring classics campaign in what’s his 20th and final season as a pro.

The 38-year-old Lotto-Soudal star opened his 2022 campaign at GP Marseillaise in the first race of his retirement season, and he approaches his final rumble across the spring classics.

The big push is for the so-called Ardennes classics, and he’s somewhat surprisingly steering clear of the cobblestone races like Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, two of the shiniest jewels in the Gilbert crown.

“I had to make the choice, and I really wanted to prepare myself for the Ardennes,” Gilbert tells VeloNews. “Even if I showed in the past it was still possible to win Flanders and Liège, because I almost did it a few times, but I think two things have changed. My age, this is something, and cycling is more specific.”

Also read:

There’s something new for Gilbert in his final season. He wants to squeeze something special out of every moment.

For a rider who’s done just about everything a pro can do in the arc of his career, “Phil-Gil” packs one wish in his final season, and that’s to win again.

“I am focused on the first part of the season. I want to give everything there in the spring classics,” Gilbert said in an exclusive interview. “I don’t want to stop early in the season. I want to do a full season and race until the end.”

Gilbert is packing it all in during his last dance in the peloton, with stops at the “opening weekend” in Belgium, Paris-Nice, and Milano-Sanremo, the latter being the lone monument missing from his trophy case. He’s hoping there’s a farewell Tour de France and perhaps even the worlds on the horizon.

Gilbert explains it all in this exclusive interview with VeloNews:

VeloNews: Philippe, thanks for the time, so how are you coming out of 2021? It was another challenging season for you, right?

Philippe Gilbert: Yes, it’s quite clear. It’s been two difficult years, I was really struggling to get into the rhythm. I still had a lot problems with my knee, but I was getting better in the last part of the season with some good results, but no wins. I like to win. I still miss this feeling. I hope to reach it again this year and win again.

VN: What was the main issue for missing the rhythm?

PG: It’s a mix of things. There were a lot of problems inside the team last year. We were not in a good environment to perform last year, with a lot of internal problems. This year we are in a much better way, and I feel better also. I feel motivated.

VN: What problems?

PG: There were a lot of problems …

VN: OK, well, perhaps for another time … so this is your last season, no second thoughts?

PG: No, when I say something, I do it. I announced my last season and it will be like that. Even if I get an offer from someone else, I will refuse it. It’s enough for me. It was easy to decide. It’s been 20 years as a pro cyclist. It’s a long way. I sacrificed a lot of things in my life, my own family, my kids, just normal living. I just want to experience all of this now. I am looking forward to this new life.

The wins came fast and easy early in his career, here winning Paris-Tours in 2008. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

VN: Was it an emotional decision to finally decide to retire?

PG: No, I did not make the mistake of thinking about it too much. Over the winter, I respected all the steps, I rested like I needed, and I restarted training by respecting the process of getting into shape. The base is really strong for me, and this will give me a big opportunity to be successful.

VN: You’ve said before that COVID really took away from the emotion of racing in front of the public, are you hopeful your final season will be a more normal one?

PG: I hope so. I feel like a lot countries are opening up a bit more now, and we see this new COVID is less aggressive. Some are accepting to live with it, let the people live more normal. I expect to see more people on the racing with less restriction. I think we are going in a good way to live again and share the emotions with the public, which is the main reason of professional sport. The sport on the highest level without the public makes no sense for me. You can just do sport in the weekend alone in the forest, but if you want to do your best, it has to be with the public.

VN: What will be the season highlights for you in 2022?

PG: I am looking forward to the last week in the Ardennes. No Flanders or Roubaix? No, I had to make the choice, and I really wanted to prepare myself for the Ardennes. Even if I showed in the past it was still possible to win Flanders and Liège, because I almost did it a few times, but I think two things have changed. My age, this is something, and cycling is more specific. I think now if you want to be successful in the Ardennes, you need to prepare for them. In the past, I was able to mix the two kinds of racing, and I was able to be successful. Now I think it’s not possible to do. Amstel Gold is a big motivation. If I win a fifth time, that would be a nice number.

VN: Everyone speaks of San Remo and the historic fifth monument, is that realistic for you?

PG: Bjaaah, it’s really hard to say. I know if this happened it would give another dimension to my career and make it unique to be the only rider from this century to win the five monuments. Winning four is already exceptional, but winning five would be incredible. I know this race could change a lot the history of my career, but I see it difficult to win this year.

Phillippe Gilbert at the 2019 Paris Roubaix
Winning Roubaix gave Gilbert four of the five monuments (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

VN: Do you see another rider coming close to winning all five monuments? 

PG: It depends a little bit on how the parcours look. I did the Giro di Lombardia many times, and I saw many different courses. It depends if you are lucky and the course suits you. For now, I don’t know how long the contract is for Oudenaarde and Flanders, and maybe [organizers] they go someone else, then you go to another course and finish, and it changes the kind of riders who can win. Sanremo is the only monument we do not change. The courses change a lot, so it depends on the course on who can win.

VN: One last Tour de France to say goodbye?

PG: I would like to do the Tour, because when I saw the presentation, I was thinking this is a good course for me. I was motivated when I saw the route. I have showed already in the past that I can work for a sprinter. I was there with Kittel when he won four stages, and I shared leadership with Greipel and Gaviria, with Alaphilippe, and me and Jungels for different things. There is a place for everyone during the Tour. I don’t think you need to put the entire team for one rider, and that would be a mistake in my eyes. You have to leave it more open for everyone.

VN: One last worlds?

PG: Honestly, I do not know. Now it’s hard to say with the selection. You can see it’s sometimes difficult, so I don’t know.

VN: Have you picked your final race?

PG: Not yet, because I am focused on the first part of the season. I want to give everything there, and then we’ll sit with the team to see where I fit better to be the most successful. I don’t want to stop early in the season. I want to do a full season and race until the end. It will be somewhere near the end of the season, but I do not know where. I would like to stop in a good place where I know I can be competitive and get a good result.

Philippe Gilbert crashed and flew over a stone wall in a switchback on stage 16 in the 2018 Tour de France. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

VN: To win one more time, at least?

PG: If you have to wish me something, wish me this — Liège.

VN: Have you decided what you will do following retirement?

PG: I’ve had a lot of proposals from different teams, and I am analyzing things. I do not want to rush and I am taking my time. I am investing all of my energy on this season and it’s hard to make choices. I do not want to start working on a new project now, because it’s a full-time job to be a cyclist and I also have my family. I don’t want to skip on things to work on a new project. I also need those moments to rest and recover, and to be mentally ready. There is no room for that now.

VN: Could you have imagined the career you would have 20 years when you began?

PG: No, I could have never imagined a career like this, with so many different wins. It’s a long and successful career, but it’s not finished yet. I am still motivated to add something and I think everyone is dreaming about the final race where you can be winning and finishing with a win, that’s a dream of everyone. It’s hard to make it happen. I will do more best to do a good last year.

DOKKUM, NETHERLANDS - AUGUST 30: (L-R) Caleb Ewan of Australia and Philippe Gilbert of Belgium and Team Lotto Soudal during the team presentation prior to the 17th Benelux Tour 2021, Stage 1 a 169,6km stage from Surhuisterveen to Dokkum / @BeneluxTour / on August 30, 2021 in Dokkum, Netherlands. (Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)
Philippe Gilbert will wave goodbye in 2022. (Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)