What a difference a year makes. Last spring, when I was on hand, the media were very polite in their remarks toward foreigners and how they liven up the spring classics, while lamenting day after day that the local boys had won absolutely nothing until Seb Rosseler, riding for Lance's Shack, broke the duck in Brabantse Pijl. Even adding Philippe Gilbert's win in Amstel, the season was a received at home as an apocalyptic failure.
And now? Sporza is yammering on about the Year of the Belgian, Eddy Merckx is saying Philemagne can maybe think about winning the Tour, and a world championship appears to be only a matter of time. Hopefully no more than about five months' worth. According to the gnomes, The Cannibal had this to say:
Gilbert is 28 now and reached its absolute peak. If it is lighter, and he dedicated himself to, he may participate in the high mountains and he can ride a good Tour. I think it should be possible.
In fairness, these comments apparently were made at a reception for Gilbert, where much drinking was going on. Kool aid? Perhaps, though beer can have the same effect when taken in combination with several large chugs of success.
That's the future though. Before we jump there, let's reassess the past.
- Gilbert did the Ardennes Triple, the second one in history. At this point this has to be the single greatest race-bunch accomplishment possible. Under the recent calendar which placed Gent-Wevelgem in the Ronde/Roubaix sandwich you could argue about which was better, but now, for the cobbles, you've got two slices of bread with the salami on the side. [OK, ham and cheese.] The Ardennes Triple is it. And don't argue with me about fall races, they're simply not on enough teams' radar.
- Anyway, back when there was a real Cobbles Triple, nobody did it except Rik Van Looy in 1962. However, Belgians have collectively hit the home-park triple this year, with Boonen, Nuyens and Van Summeren taking G-W, Flanders and Roubaix. This marks the third such occurrence in the last 35 years Belgium has pulled this off (with the Netherlands accomplishing the deed in 1983).
- Until yesterday, no nation had swept the Ardennes and cobbled classics since 1975, when Belgium did the double-triple.
- As for the Monuments, the trio of Gilbert, Van Summeren and Nuyens have notched three wins in four events, with only Lombardia to come, a race owned by Gilbert the last two years. Four monuments by a single country hasn't been done since 2002, when Italy sent four different winners to the top of the Monument podiums. Belgium swept all five in 1976 and rattled off nine wins in ten events dating from MSR '75 to Lombardia '76.
I'm not sure you can compare the people or the sport too directly to past eras, even within the modern mega-era, but as a matter of palmares 2011 compares most closely to the 1975 and '76 seasons of total Belgium dominance. The greatest season ever by one nation in the modern era has to be 1976, when Belgium swept the monuments, Lucien Van Impe won the Tour de France, and Freddy Maertens the World Championships. Or maybe 1972 when Belgians swept the monuments and won the Tour and Giro. Certainly not 1969, when Belgians again swept the monuments, won the Tour, but lost the Worlds in Zolder.
What makes 1976 special is that every single one of these landmark races was won by a different Belgian. Merckx was about to retire, and nabbed only MSR, while Walter Planckaert succeeded the Cannibal in Flanders, Marc Demeyer won Paris-Roubaix, Joseph Bruyere won L-B-L, and Roger de Vlaeminck won Lombardia. Add in Maertens' rainbow and Van Impe's lone maillot jaune and you have Belgian nirvana... hey, there's even a Wallonian in there! [Or so I think; all I can find on Bruyere is that he was born in Maastricht, so who knows.]
With no grand tour wins likely this year, in the final event the season may look an awful lot like 1975, when Francesco Moser's win in Lombardia broke up the hot streak, and Belgium's success wasn't spread around too far beyond the considerable grasp of Eddy Merckx. Lacking in grand tours, Belgium did pull off the sweep of the Ardennes and Cobbles, winning the lesser Wednesday races and Amstel to go along with four of the monuments. Already, with Gilbert playing Merckx, the parallels are striking and will be even more so if Philemagne wins in the Falling Leaves. Should Gilbert (or another countryman) win the worlds and Lombardia, you can put this right up with the best seasons, ahead of 1975, though not quite up to 1976 snuff. For now, it's in the top ten seasons by any country since 1960.
Adding... all of this is being done with minimal contribution from Tom Boonen. It was Boonen, most recently, who was being discussed as the savior of Belgian cycling, a rider strong enough to maybe grab a few other wins away from the cobbles, at least before we shifted to talking of Cancellara winning the five monuments. Boonen is what he is, and is not a mountain climber, but it's remarkable that the country's biggest star (until now) has contributed only a single minor win to this historic effort.