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Phil Versus History: Ranking Gilbert Against the Classics Greats

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On Saturday Philippe Gilbert won the Clasica San Sebastian, a feat that was astounding only in its predictability (and yes, our race preview was entitled "Has Gilbert Won Yet?"). This is either an impressive or terrifying development, depending on who you ask, and a pretty good prompt that maybe it's time to come up with a way to measure where Phil now compares to historical figures.

Gilbert celebrated his 29th birthday on July 5, marked by donning the meilleur grimpeur polka dot jersey at the Tour de France (and then lost a stage, uncharacteristically, to Cadel Evans and a few others on the Mur de Bretagne). Counting stage races and single day results, Gilbert has authored 14 wins this season, comparing rather favorably to six last year and seven each of the two prior seasons. But while he ranks first in wins, ahead of the bunch sprinters for whom win totals are currency, quantity is hardly the story. It's the quality that spurs comparisons to the all-time greats.

Op de flipje...

Gilbert owns a few titles of distinction. He is probably the first true winner of the Ardennes Triple -- victories at Amstel Gold, La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in eight days -- since the only other such victor on record is the thoroughly disgraced Davide Rebellin. He is also the owner of a very rare run of autumn success, accomplishing the Autumn Double (Paris-Tours and the Giro di Lombardia) in 2009 to join Rik Van Looy, Phillip Thys and Jo de Roo, the last to pull it off in 1963. These two sets of wins are actually part of two incredible winning streaks: the 2011 Ardennes coming along with Brabantse Pijl and the 2009 Autumn Double pairing with the Giro del Piemonte and Coppa Sabatini. Thus, each of these runs was comprised of four consecutive wins from truly elite fields.

Viewed in isolation, these results suggest Gilbert possesses a climbing classics pedigree, with enough durability and sprinting power to nab some of the lowland events too. Gilbert owns a slew of third placings in spring -- two at Milano-Sanremo, two at Flanders, one at Gent-Wevelgem -- and anybody who watched him this spring saw a guy capable of racking up some Flanders wins, and probably an MSR in years where there is enough off-the-Poggio attacking. He doesn't race Paris-Roubaix (at present), but he is hardly unique there.

So, how do we rate him in terms of history? Certainly he's not #1 -- even Edvald Boasson Hagen knows the answer to that question. Putting aside the grand tour wins, The Cannibal owns all of the classics victory records too, and Gilbert's three monument wins leave him 16 short of that rarified environment. However, Eddy Merckx is one standard by which to measure Gilbert, as are (in my estimation) these guys: Roger de Vlaeminck, Sean Kelly, Michele Bartoli and Rik Van Looy.

Other megawinners include Henri Pelissier, Constantine Girardegno, Alfredo Binda and Fausto Coppi, but I'd prefer to cut off this exercise at around 1960, where the sport starts to become incomparable to the modern era. I suppose I could include Moreno Argentin, Paolo Bettini, Bernard Hinault, Jo de Roo, or even Tom Simpson as comparables. I'm happy to have someone else run that comparison, so this post gets published before October. OK, let's dive in.

Eddy Merckx

Monuments: 19 (MSR x7, LBL x5, P-R x3, RvV x2, GdL x2)

Monuments by age 29: 15

Other big classics: World Champion, 3x; Fleche Wallonne 3x, Omloop Het Volk 2x, Brabantse Pijl, Scheldeprijs, Giro dell'Emilia, Amstel Gold 2x, Hour Record, Paris-Brussels

Other big classics by age 29: Pretty much all of them save for one world title

Gilbert Comparison: Cross off Paris-Roubaix and the grand tours, and Mercx's career sets up a nice list of races that every great classics rider should try to win at some point.* Gilbert is missing the world title, he'll probably never bother with the Scheldeprijs or Paris-Brussels, and if he can win La Fleche Wallonne then he can bag Emilia too. Thus far he hasn't raced Emilia due to his love affair with Paris-Tours, run on the same weekend.

[* Every means all of them. And a handful of the very best simply won't race Paris-Roubaix. So I'm OK with this omission, even though I died a little writing that just now.]

Rik Van Looy

Monuments: 8 (P-R x3, RvV x2, GdL, MSR, LBL)

Monuments by age 29: 7

Other big classics: World Champion x2, Gent-Wevelgem x2, Paris-Brussels x2, Schledeprijs x2, E3 Prijs x4, Paris-Tours x2

Other big classics by age 29: Most of them, minus one Paris-Tours and all the E3s, since it didn't exist until I believe '63.

Gilbert Comparison: So these old guys... the age thing is hard to compare to modern riders. Not only did guys like Van Looy and Merckx start winning right out of high school, they also stopped winning right around 30. Anyway, The Emperor of the Herentals wasn't overly similar to Gilbert, with only a single win in each of the two hilliest Monuments (LBL and Lombardia) while winning Paris-Roubaix three times along with a slew of wins in and around Flanders. But he was the "king of the classics" so it's worth looking in on him. Gilbert could win E3 Prijs, especially now that it will be a UCI race again next season. The only downside for Phil is that 200kms might make it too easy to suit him.

Roger De Vlaeminck

Monuments: 11 (P-R x4, MSR x3, GdL x2, RvV, LBL)

Monuments by age 29: 6

Other big classics: Omloop x2, KBK x2, Scheldeprijs, E3 Prijs, Milan-Turin 2x, Zuri Metzgete, Giro del Lazio, Giro dell'Emilia, Coppa Agostini, Giro del Piemonte, Paris-Brussels, Brabantse Pijl

Other big classics by age 29: Everything up to Zurich.

Gilbert Comparison: Anyone known as "Mr. Paris-Roubaix" isn't going to resemble Gilbert. De Vlaeminck was great enough to win all five monuments, but heavily tilted towards Flanders, and his victory totals probably exceed where Gilbert is headed. The guy was even a cyclocross world champion. So yeah, he was more of the Ultimate Flandrien than a true all-rounder like Phil. He was a late-bloomer, however, winning quite often after his 29th birthday.

Sean Kelly

Monuments: 9 GdL x3, P-R x2, MSR x2, LBL x2)

Monuments by age 29: 4

Other big classics: GP Plouay, Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Tours

Other big classics by age 29: Plouay

Gilbert Comparison: Hm, in some ways the comparison is tempting. Kelly was a sprinter who climbed extremely well -- the complete package, really -- but he didn't target the classics as much as some of the others on this list, since in his era the Vuelta a Espana happened in April and he rode for years with the Spanish Kas team. So Kelly rode stage races with gusto, dominating Paris-Nice for years and racking up 21 grand tour stage wins, most of them at the Vuelta, and a green jersey at the Tour. He won season-long competitions (Super Prestige Pernod, World Cup) and racked up endless results in sprints. It's fair to say that if he concentrated on the classics he might have a thicker resume there. Like, if he were born in Belgium, or fit in better with his early Belgian teams. Gilbert will probably never win the Vuelta and his record will never look like Kelly's, but I can't help think of them as similar riders. Well, up to a point. Kelly relied on his sprint more than Gilbert ever will.

Michele Bartoli

Monuments: 5 (GdL x2, LBL x2, RvV)

Monuments by age 29: 3 (RvV, LBL x2)

Other big classics: Brabantse Pijl x2, GP Pino Cerami, Giro dell'Emilia x2, Giro della Romagna, Zuri Metzgete, Fleche Wallonne, GP Plouay, Het Volk, Amstel Gold, Milano-Torino, Giro del Lazio

Other big classics by age 29: Everything up to Plouay

Gilbert Comparison: Honestly, I never really saw Bartoli in action, so I don't have much of a sense of how he rode and won. But the palmares makes me think that of the guys on this list he is probably most similar to Gilbert. He emphasized the classics, leaning toward the hilly ones. His focus was on Belgium and Italy, the two greatest lands of opportunity. Having raced into the new millenium, there are certain similarities in the environment in which they raced -- although one hopes that the doping culture is a complete disconnect. Anyway, that aside, the parallels seem enticing.

Except that Gilbert will pass by Bartoli in the (theoretical) all-time rankings, most likely, assuming you don't think he has already. Left to do are things like de Ronde, an obvious and makeable Gilbert goal, and big sub-monuments like Plouay (perfect for PG) and Emilia (doable). Already Gilbert has his two astounding runs of success, unlike anything seen in modern times, and he will have several shots at a world title, which would help Gilbert leap several rungs up the all-time classics ladder.

*****

So what does it all mean? That Gilbert is a hybrid of sorts: he has the perfect makeup for several types of classics, including uphill finishes, selective sprints, and hard (re. lowland) days in the saddle. Being Belgian and racing for a Belgian team has enabled him to focus more on the classics than a number of riders with his makeup, including Italians like Damiano Cunego or Paolo Bettini, and Spaniards like Alejandro Valverde. But then I can't picture any of those guys winning Paris-Tours, so "hybrid" really is the word. Also, his streakiness is a true trademark. Four consecutive wins in the tricky, tough classics is mind-bogglingly hard, but when he is on fire, nobody can stop him.

Gilbert's overall record begs for comparison with a lot of the classics specialists from past eras, and against the greatest of them he falls short, so far, for lack of results in Flanders. Maybe Flanders is a bad fit -- the finishes in places like de Ronde or E3 or Gent-Wevelgem are pretty flat, and Gilbert has a few incidences of losing sprints or trying unsuccessfully to solo away. Harder finishes, like Brabantse Pijl or San Sebastian or the Italian races, suit him perfectly. But two wins in Paris-Tours says he can win flat finishes too. At age 29, headed for his prime and the contract of his life, the Gilbert story is probably less than half told.

Oh, and one place where he absolutely falls down is nicknames. Wikipedia lists "Phil" and nothing more. The Champ from Remouchamps? I'm open to ideas here.

Photo by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport