Philippe Gilbert is a man of great expectations and aspirations. If I had won the amount of races he did last year, I’d be feeling pretty invincible too. Now, he’s setting his sights on the world’s biggest bike race – the Tour de France. After wearing the yellow jersey for a day at last year’s edition, he caught the Tour de France bug. And he’s out for more.
“I’m very curious about riding the Tour alongside [Cadel] Evans,” the Belgian said. “I want to get a close look to understand clearly how he prepares for the task and how he conducts himself in the race. We already rode the 2009 Vuelta together, when we were team mates at Silence-Lotto, and it was a great experience. I started this year’s Tour in yellow and I finished very strongly. In future I’d like to aim for a GC position.”
His grand ambition is as lofty as the mountains which he hopes to ascend with the best, but is his ultimate yellow-tinted goal out of reach? Unfortunately for Gilbert he is no longer a young rider, and at 29 if he wants to win a Grand Tour then he needs to adapt rather quickly. Given that he still has eyes on winning Paris-Roubaix and/or the Tour of Flanders, maybe he’s left it a little too late in the day to achieve all of his goals.
On the other hand, he still could have ten years left in cycling, and five riding among the very best. Cadel Evans won last year’s Tour de France at the age of 34, a rider who in the past has been able to juggle competing for the classics with vying for Tour de France success. Evans won La Fleche Wallonne in 2010 – the first of the three Ardennes Classics. Last year, Gilbert won them all.
What’s more, it’s not like Gilbert has too much adapting to do. He’s not a pure power machine like Fabian Cancellara, or perhaps more relevant is the example of Bradley Wiggins. What Wiggo achieved in turning himself from an Olympic track gold medalist and time trial engine to a GC favourite is one of the most impressive sporting achievements in recent years.
Gilbert alluded to his impressive escapades in the 2011 Tour, and he’s correct – up until stage 14 he was still riding with the best climbers in the race. After 2,280 km of racing he still sat in 9th place, just 35 seconds off (albeit an out of sorts) Alberto Contador. He finished in 38th place, almost an hour-and-a-quarter off the time of eventual winner Cadel Evans.
If Gilbert is to win a Grand Tour in the future then it will most likely be the Vuelta. He’s come reasonably close in the past, and it’s a race without too many huge mountains and more punchy climbs – on the likes of which he excels and accelerates away from the bunch. Of course, he’d have to hope that it was a Vuelta in which the Angliru was left off the itinerary!
Personally, I don’t think that Gilbert will ever be able to do enough to win the Tour de France, not least because of his goals to win other classics – it seems like his motivation still remains with winning the big spring races at the moment. Plus it’s obvious that he’d want a rainbow jersey to add to his ever-expanding collection. That’s not to say that a high Tour GC position can’t be achieved – it’s worth remembering that last year’s Tour de France was an unusually difficult one, and perhaps in an easier Tour de France with less of the mammoth climbs he’d be in contention.
What do you think?