Remember how 2012 was a bust for Philippe Gilbert? Well, it’s not anymore.
In a season where Mark Cavendish’s 14 individual wins were a disappointment and sent him looking for a new team, and Fabian Cancellara’s second at Milan-San Remo was a bust, Gilbert’s Spring Classics was a train wreck. After winning the Ardennes Triple Crown in 2011, he was a non-factor at Amstel, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Fleche Wallone. A total bust, a ghost from January until August, and the most talked about bust of the season. Until now.
The improvement of form began to show itself at the Vuelta, where Gilbert won two stages and rode aggressively on some of the toughest stages of the race. In a Vuelta infamous for high mountains and long jaunts over multiple high peaks, Gilbert carefully rode himself into the form many expected him to have in the spring. With BMC riding with no real direction, he had the freedom to essentially train and hunt stages from long, dramatic breakaways. It worked.
And when fellow Belgian decided to skip the Vuelta because it was too hard, cycling fans applauded the decision. What good what the Vuelta do for a rider like Boonen or Gilbert, anyway? It did wonders. While not on the same form as 2011, Gilbert rode the World Championships on Sunday was if he was the favorite, even though many had Boonen on the brain. With the team’s full compliment of racers dedicated and working the front for nearly all of the day, having two favorites worked for Belgium just as it ruined chances for Spain.
While the Belgians united behind Gilbert, Spain’s fractious showing once again derailed the hopes of the highest ranked nation in the world. With Alberto Contador fully committed to riding for the team and even breaking off an 29- man break with four laps to go, the rest of the team failed to follow the script, which was to ride for retiring captain Oscar Freire. Riders like Alejandro Valverde, Pablo Lastras and others were flying off the front and left Freire on the final trip up the Cauberg. Though Gilbert had already put in his move, the team believed Freire could be hauled to the summit and launched on the finishing straight. It was a plan that might have worked if the team was all-in, and even the disorganized efforts of Edvald Boasson-Hagen, Alejandro Valverde and Oscar Gatto brought back Gilbert by a good 20 seconds in the final kilometer. Instead, Friere will retire on a sour note and Spain with a podium instead of a champion.
The rainbow jersey will be on Belgian shoulders for the first time since Boonen won in 2005, when he went on to have the most wins in a season by a world champion in 2006. Gilbert’s BMC squad will host its second world champion in the team since Cadel Evans wore the rainbow jersey in 2010. If some rumors are true, and Mark Cavendish lands with BMC, the team will have five former champions on the same team. (Don’t count on it; Cav will be with Boonen at OmegaPharma-QuickStep. Ed Note)
So how will Gilbert honor the jersey? He’ll need to match Cavendish’s 14 wins in 2012 as a measuring stick, which would be a very tall ask for a non-sprinter. For Gilbert, wins early in the Ardennes and stages in France and Spain will have to serve as his gifts to fans and his way of honoring the stripes. He’ll have his first opportunity to cap off 2012 at the Giro de Lombardia, one of the great Classics on the cycling calendar. He’s won the race twice before, in 2009 and 2010.