The Human Element

Patrick Verhoest

We talk a lot about what went wrong for Philippe Gilbert. Maybe it's time to talk about what went right for Cycling?

Here's a theory -- maybe guys don't repeat great seasons like they used to because they're... human beings?

There has been some chatter of late about outgoing world champion Philippe Gilbert, coming off a forgettable season (by his standards) and another huge year of salary (with one more to come). Gilbert has twice reached unbelievable highs, in 2009 when he won the rare Autumn Double (Lombardia and Paris-Tours), and in 2011 when he swept the Ardennes classics, plus Brabantse Pijl for good measure. Because it's cycling, the fandom jumped to a variety of unhelpful conclusions -- he cheated; he's naturally that good so he should win all of those races every year; etc.

This was the atmosphere surrounding him as he made his way to BMC in 2012. Philippe Gilbert, newly rich, dominant mega-star, ready to raise the wealthy, stacked American team to a new level. But his health and/or luck deserted him, as a tooth problem plus the odd stomach virus did just enough to rob him of his top form -- namely knocking him out of his crucial training races at Tirreno-Adriatico. This "poor" Gilbert finished sixth in Amstel and third in Fleche Wallonne, after chasing back his form for several weeks, then rebounded nicely at the season's end with two stage wins at the Vuelta and a World Championship.

This past season Gilbert won only once (assuming he's done, and he's not on any startlists at the moment). Easily his worst season of the last several, Gilbert nonetheless came close to winning at Brabantse Pijl (2nd), Amstel (5th), Liege (7th) and the Belgian Nats (6th RR, 2nd ITT). These results, coming off a changed program which put him in Spain in April rather than Belgium, speak of a rider who was quite good, if not quite great. It bears mentioning that making a reported $3 million per season comes with its share of pressure, and the team suffered some sort of mini-implosion after the Tour de France, when Jean Lelangue suddenly left his DS post. BMC have kept the specifics in house, but suffice to say Gilbert didn't work under ideal circumstances this season.

So back to the conclusions. Was he doping when he won big in 2009 and 2011? Only he knows the contents of his blood, and after the last decade or so everyone is a theoretically possible cheat. But Gilbert is not a probable cheat. He came up the ranks in France, racing for FDJ through 2008, where testing has been ahead of neighboring countries. He was an early advocate for clean sport. All merely circumstantial evidence, but it's more than nothing I suppose. Earlier this season anonymous rumors surfaced that Gilbert had taken cortisone under a dodgy TUE, but such rumors are hard to take seriously. And besides, if cortisone gives you a one-day boost before trashing your form for a short while, it doesn't fit well with his two four-wins-in-ten-days escapades. You never know, about anyone, but Gilbert doesn't set off alarm bells. A better explanation is that he has always been an immense talent, something we saw several times during his FDJ days. So either he was cheating all along, even in France, or he was a great rider who put it all together as his body and tactical prowess reached full maturity.

So why didn't he put it together again in 2012 and 2013? If you're that strong, don't you just keep training all over again and end up with the same level of performance? It's possible, but if you believe in clean cycling, then you have to start acknowledging the human element.

For some perspective, consider the following:

  • Not until 1996 did a rider win five consecutive Tours de France. The greats Anquetil and Merckx won four straight, Bobet three in a row.
  • The greats Bartali and Coppi never won more than two consecutive Giri or Tours -- in part because they fought each other and shifted priorities. But Coppi faltered or abandoned the Giro seven times and the Tour even more.
  • The capricious classics have rarely given way to any sort of consistent dominance. Moser won three Paris-Roubaix editions in a row, while Magni took three straight Tours of Flanders.
  • Miguel Indurain won five Tours in the early, everything-goes EPO era. He is said to have averaged 455 watts for the entire 1995 Tour, a number well in excess of Lance Armstrong's performances.
  • Lance Armstrong won his seven straight, with hardly a bad day anywhere in that stretch.
  • Erik Zabel won six straight green jerseys, four more than the previous consecutive-wins record.

The latter three are well-understood to have been byproducts of EPO and other substances. We all know that EPO takes out the guesswork. That's how Armstrong could take out insurance policies against winning -- essentially, million-dollar bets that he would win the Tour. Because with EPO (etc.), he could dial in his form exactly to where it needed to go, and if he didn't crash too badly, victory was his.

I'm not sure there is a pre-doping era; we know Anquetil was an outspoken user of whatever he felt justified in taking. But before EPO there was no way to dope performances with such precision. There was no way to fend off a jour sans every day for years on end. There was no way to avoid years when circumstances conspired to kill or just diminish your top form. In the post-EPO era (and by "post" I mean mostly post), we should see things we missed for a good 15 years. Riders suffering grotesquely on the hardest climbs, rather than sprinting up Mont Ventoux in a big, not overly tired bunch. Riders having good days and bad days. And riders being at the mercy of life, both the physical and psychological limitations which conspire against your best cycling. Life hasn't changed, but the ability to load up a syringe and overcome all of life's natural challenges has.

And so we have Gilbert, a rider capable of the greatest achievements (at the one-day level) and also, we now know, capable of falling short of that level rather than winning every year in metronomic fashion. In 2012, Gilbert's health problems were clearly the issue in the spring. This year... who knows? He had a second child in May, meaning he had a very pregnant wife in March and April, plus a toddler on hand. I can say from experience that this is a complete wipeout to any set of parents who deal with this themselves. Professional athletes have the ability to hire help, or fly in grandma, or find other ways to lessen their burden while trying to stay in top form. But there's a razor-thin difference between "great" form -- top ten form -- and dominant, historic form like what we've seen Gilbert reach on two occasions. If things aren't perfect, and by things I mean all circumstances, including his team's morale, and the weight of the Rainbow Jersey and who knows what else, then you can probably get in great form, but you probably won't reach historic form.

That's why they call it historic form. It doesn't come along every day, even to the rider blessed enough to experience it in the first place. Take out the endless doping, and the natural variation that makes historic form "historic" becomes possible again.

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