Philippe Gilbert: profile of a champion

In February 2012, RIDE Cycling Review published a profile piece by Jean-François Quenét about the world number-one rider of 2011. Philippe Gilbert has since become the world champion. His victory in Limburg on Sunday 23 September 2012 reminds us that his attacking ways may have abated a little in Spring and Summer this year, but he finished off the season with another solid surge that no one else could respond to. The 30-year-old Belgian will wear the rainbow jersey for the next 12 months. Here is the profile from RIDE #55 in full to remind us where he came from…

 

 

From world number-one to world champion…

The real story behind the emergence of this true superstar from the Belgian Ardennes.

By Jean-François Quenet

The world number-one from 2011 has managed his career carefully and last year he reaped the reward for his pragmatic approach to racing. Philippe Gilbert won more than any other rider after a decade as a professional. The Walloon is proud of his upbringing at the base of one of cycling’s famous climbs and now he’s a phenomenon who is able to win on a whim. Jean-François Quenet explains his story…


Before he signed up to be a professional cyclist, Philippe Gilbert studied horticulture.On 19 November 2011, he showed that he hadn’t forgotten details relating to tree planting; he was the guest of honour of Aywaille’s mayor, Philippe Dodrimont. Asked to select something to plant in his honour, the 29-year-old chose an oak – something solid – to leave a legacy in his hometown. Roots are important to him, even though he has moved to Monaco for several good reasons related to cycling. He wasn’t looking to be forgiven after leaving Lotto at the end of last season and not signing with the other major Belgian team Omega Pharma-Quickstep that he’d been courted by.After six seasons with French outfit FDJ and three with Lotto, he opted for a return to a foreign team with BMC. He’ll start his tenure there ranked number-one in the world. He’s a superstar now but he never forgets where he came from.“At any time of his career, Philippe has shown sympathy for his fans and countrymen,” said his older brother Christian who runs the fan club. Even after proving that he’s a great champion, Gilbert enjoys meeting his fans in person or sharing online chats once in a while. “I didn’t get the opportunity to go back home since the memorable party following my win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège,” said the Belgian champion seven months after he reached the pinnacle of his career.

Gilbert won more races than any other pro cyclist in 2011: 18 in total! This a boast that only pure sprinters can generally make, bearing in mind that up to 80 per cent of the races end in bunch finishes. But last year he won the Monument, one that defines his career as a cyclist: Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

He was born on 5 July 1982, in Verviers, and he grew up in Remouchamps, right at the bottom of the famous steep climb of La Redoute. As a kid, he watched the oldest of the Classics from the roadside from the family home. When he took up cycling, going up that ascent was his daily bread at training. “As long as Philippe is in contention, we simply cannot take La Redoute off the Liège-Bastogne-Liège course,” stated the race director, ASO’s Christian Prudhomme.

More than a thousand fans were still present under the huge tent planted on a field nearby the legendary steep climb when the local star showed up late on the night of that magic Sunday in April. It’s a small bitumen track really, so narrow that two cars cannot pass without shunting wheels off the un-guttered verge. But it was the site of a great celebration. Before that took place, however, the executioner of the Schleck brothers attended the requisite media appointments.

Earlier that day, the two Luxembourgers were the only riders able to respond to Gilbert’s surges that dropped everyone else. The Escape had been established but the pair – even when they worked together – couldn’t do anything but accept defeat in the epic 2011 edition of Liège.

“Whether he does well or not, he always makes a point of turning up to say hello after the race ever since we first set up this party,” said his brother Christian.

It’s amazing that such a convincing win, built in the backyard where he played as a kid, is still possible in modern sport with a global starting list. The 2011 Liège podium was indeed composed of locals. Luxembourg is less than 100km from Aywaille and the Schlecks are also inspired by the history of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. That part of Benelux is known for the “battles of the Ardennes”. The Amblève valley was the site of terrible fights during WWII. Passing through Houffalize and La Gleize, the riders can see the tanks exposed for memorial. But the cycling fights are older than those from the war.

Gilbert is a product of the history of cycling. He has learnt so much by himself that he doesn’t need any coach or SRM device to help him achieve what he did at the age of 29. I got to know him 10 years before he became the world number-one, and was amazed by the authenticity of the young man. It was immediately apparent that he was a talent worthy of support. While I’d rather not reference my personal influence on the rise and rise of Philippe Gilbert, he is a rider I’ve worked with since his amateur days. His success doesn’t surprise me. My editor has asked for some insight into Gilbert, the man and the rider. I’ve known him for over a decade. Here’s my story.

 

 

In September 2001, the part-time directeur sportif of the Nantes 44 amateur cycling club couldn’t partake in a race. I was asked to drive the team car at the Tour de Seine-et-Marne. At one point I had to overtake the bunch so that I could assist our rider in the breakaway, Yuriy Krivtsov. Although I was concentrating on my driving, a figure stood out from the bunch. Such a fabulous pedalling style was hard to ignore. Instinct told me to take note of his number: 53. I remember it still. Scrolling down the startlist, I saw the name of a guy that seemed French but he was part of a Flemish team called ABX-Go Pass directed by Dirk De Wolf, the winner of the centenary edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1992.

The next morning, with his team car parked beside mine, I spoke to number-53 for the first time. “Are you a Walloon?”

I got the answer in our common, native language, “Oui.

Within minutes I felt like I knew this guy: a polite, happy rider who was obviously passionate about cycling. But even all those qualities – and a great style on the bike – don’t necessarily make someone a champion.

I paid more attention to Philippe Gilbert the following week when the Belgian cycling federation released their selection for the under-23 team for the world championships in Lisbon, Portugal. I wasn’t surprised to see Kevin De Weert on the list; at the age of 19 he had won the Tour de Seine-et-Marne title with the support of the Rabobank development squad. But there was another 19-year-old: Gilbert.

It’s traditionally harder for a Walloon to get selected for the Belgian team than it is for Flemish riders yet Gilbert was only a first-year under-23 – and from a country that had plenty of talents for that category. This prompted some research and I realised that I’d already written his name in Ouest-France, the daily paper I worked for until 2000. I listed him as one of the favourites for the junior world championship in Plouay a year earlier. The race was won by New Zealand’s Jeremy Yates.

Gilbert has made the Belgian national team for every world championship since 2000! He was selected in every category: junior, U23 and even as a neo-pro in 2003.

I chatted with him again on the start line in Lisbon. I was surprised by his familiar behaviour. We hadn’t spoken much before then but he was interesting and interested. As a teenager, he was already outspoken, engaging and easy-going.

We met again at the Tour du Loir-et-Cher the following season. It was in the middle of April. He came second, beaten by French amateur Samuel Gicquel. At Blois in the Loire Valley we talked about him turning professional, as he clearly had the adequate profile. I asked if he was thinking of joining a foreign team rather than a Belgian one. “I’m definitely more interested in joining a foreign team,” he told me before explaining why.

“My compatriot Sébastien Rosseler rode as a stagiaire with Domo. All he was asked to do was to protect Johan Museeuw from the wind for the first two hours of racing. On the other hand,” Gilbert continued, “Tom Boonen joined US Postal and got the opportunity to ride Paris-Roubaix with freedom in his first pro year.”

This discussion was less than a week after Boonen was third in his first attempt at Roubaix. “What about French teams?”

“Sure,” he said. “It would make my debut as a pro a little easier because of our common language.”

Gilbert never had trouble with other languages. From the beginning he made an effort to speak Flemish even though he was told French would suffice. He practised his English in the bunch and took up Italian as he felt this was widely spoken in cycling and, as he would discover, he loved racing in Italy.

Three days after that Tour du Loir-et-Cher, I met him on another start line. This time, in the small town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu for the Côte Picarde – a race now on the calendar of the Nations Cup. An unexpected visitor showed up: Française des Jeux team manager Marc Madiot. The two-time winner of Paris-Roubaix was an astute judge of talent and he was always on the lookout for riders to develop. I asked if he’d be interested in meeting a young Belgian. “I’m always interested in Belgians,” replied Madiot. “They have cycling in their blood.”

And so I asked Gilbert if he was interested. “Of course!”

Their meeting was brief. The manager didn’t want to disturb the rider’s preparation for the race. He noted his phone number and said: “I’ll come and see you at home.”

Madiot likes to see if the environment is favourable to develop a young rider. He went to Remouchamps less than two weeks later, met the family, gave away a couple of FDJ jerseys but never talked business. He didn’t offer Gilbert a contract. They talked cycling. They clicked. They had the same passion. A friendship was born, but by July, Gilbert had nine offers to turn professional!

 

 

I met Gilbert again after the Tour de France in the Breton race Tro Kreizh Breizh and advised him to choose FDJ, based on the examples of Australia’s Bradley McGee and Baden Cooke who were nurtured cleverly during their formative years in the professional ranks, with no pressure from Madiot. I still don’t know if he took my advice into consideration but he made the choice I’d suggested. The only advice he asked me for later on was about extending his contract. I told him that it would be a good idea to stay for five years with FDJ and, after that, he would be ready to win big races with a more ambitious team. He didn’t follow my recommendation entirely; he remained with Madiot for six seasons but he effectively won big after moving away from FDJ and to Silence-Lotto.

It was a considered and performance-orientated transfer but Gilbert still calls Madiot before and after his numerous wins much like brothers do. “When I turned pro, I never thought I’d win so much and get so much recognition,” he said after being awarded the Kristallen Fiets (Crystal Bike) as the best Belgian cyclist of 2011 by the prime minister at the time – and a great cycling supporter – Yves Leterme. “I’ve always said that winning races pleases me more than getting end-of-year trophies,” Gilbert said late last year. “But winning the Kristallen Fiets for the fourth time means something!”

He was also the best Belgian sportsman. He received the Vélo d’Or for the world’s best cyclist of the year.

He had won 18 races – including the phenomenal triple in the Ardennes in April (the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège), the Belgian championship, the opening stage of the Tour de France, the Clasica San Sebastien and the GP de Quebec to seal his number-one status.

“Starting with the Amstel Gold Race, I had a dream season and the success story never stopped after that,” said the man who signed his first official biography under the (Flemish) title Mijn DroomjaarMy Dream Year. “But I’ve always been aware that what I was doing was exceptional; each one could potentially be the last victory I’d get, so I enjoyed every moment as if it was the last. I’m well aware that sport is unpredictable, we’re always on the edge. Next year, I can have a season like Fabian Cancellara in 2011: podium at Milan-San Remo, Flanders, Roubaix, the worlds… but no great win.

“So many riders wish they could achieve what he did but after winning big, there’s a huge difference between winning and coming second. I don’t know what my limits are. The 2011 season hasn’t given me any indication of my limits because I’ve achieved things I never previously thought I could. For example, it was surprising to finish the Tour de France so fresh.

 

 

“I expect to improve physically again in the next two years. I believe that I’ll be stronger in 2012 and even stronger in 2013. After that, it’ll be a question of remaining at the highest level of the sport as long as possible. Motivation will be a key factor to determine for how long I can perform.”

Philippe Gilbert insists that he still has unfinished business even after winning the Classic of his dreams. “I want to win every Classic at least once, and the world championship of course,” said the Walloon who missed a real opportunity to get the rainbow jersey in Geelong when he rode into a headwind just after it seemed plausible that he had established a winning escape. He’ll be a hot favourite at the 2012 worlds as the course in the Dutch province of Limburg features the Cauberg, a climb he knows he can use to his advantage, having twice won the Amstel Gold Race at the top of that rise.

“I may never win the Tour of Flanders or Milan-San Remo even though I’ll do everything I can to achieve that,” he explained. “If so, it’ll remain like a small disappointment but, from now on, I’ll race with the state of mind that I won’t be disappointed by my career after what I’ve already enjoyed.”

He’s not a big fan of the kind of pavé of Paris-Roubaix but he’ll give it another try – after getting his first taste of it years ago with FDJ – when the time is right.

Whatever is next for him, Gilbert’s legacy to cycling will go beyond his sporting results. At a crucial time for the sport to regain credibility in the post-Armstrong era, he appears to be a leader with an opinion and a sense of responsibility. Before the 2011 season, he was one of the very few riders who had no problem expressing a different point of view to the directeurs sportifs about the use of radio communication. He said that he was in favour of the ban, even though it was rumoured that a mafia pact in the peloton would prevent him from winning races. But he has never won so much! Does it mean that the sport is no longer ruled by the mafia and The Boss? Gilbert’s different approach might indeed be a positive sign.

Gilbert accepted a place on the newly formed Athletes’ Commission of the UCI. On 23 November, he went to the headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland together with the likes of Bernhard Eisel, Dario Cioni and Marianne Vos – under the presidency of French former track star Florian Rousseau – to discuss what really matters for the professional bike riders: their environment (coach, manager, agent, etc), social security and welfare system (as the American way of team management only considers a pay cheque but no concern of employees’ health, insurance and/or pension), the risks related to the technology, safety equipment, as well as the benefits and traps of the use of social networks.

“I’ve heard that some riders accuse me of working for the UCI and getting protection for that,” Gilbert explained. “I’m aware of the feeling of jealousy that exists in our little world. The CPA (professional cyclists’ union) has done a lot to defend the riders’ salary but I’ve lost motivation at the CPA because it has become a question of egos rather than the real desire to help cycling improve. In the contacts I’ve had with [UCI road co-ordinator] Philippe Chevallier, I’ve felt that the UCI was looking for a true dialogue with the riders.

“In my family, we’ve always been interested in politics, in the act of giving and exchanging ideas. The debate over the radio communication has made a lot of noise but it’s far from being the most important subject to talk about in cycling. For example, it’s clear that the sport needs experts to film the races. In Spain or Italy, they often don’t deliver a good broadcast. They come up with poor images with backlighting or they show the local hero getting dropped instead of the real action. We have to accept the idea that, in the future, the public of cycling will be less and less on the roadsides and more and more in front of the television, globally.”

This is how the world’s number-one keeps himself busy during the off-season. He works hard on managing the future of the sport he loves so much. When I asked this teenager if he was a Walloon 10 years ago, I didn’t realise that I was talking to a UCI president in the making.

 

By Jean-François Quenet 

 

 

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