Just when it looks like Michal Kwiatkowski might win the spring, Greg Van Avermaet wins the spring. UPDATE!
Good god... I’m not even sure what to say here. The return of a Philippe Gilbert who inspires the kind of analysis that can only lapse into frenzied exclamation is one of the biggest shocks to my fanhood in a long, long time.
And what we saw Sunday was vintage Gilbert. He forced matters with 39km to go, following a strong move by Tiesj Benoot on the Kruisberg, a move made possible because he got himself into third wheel coming into the climb, winning the mad scrum that preceded the action. I’m not sure he completely bossed the race, but he did enough to prevent Alejandro Valverde from joining, and as the race approached Maastricht for one last time he was ready to pounce. When Kwiatkowski accelerated in an effort to winnow down the pack before the sprint on the Bemelerberg, Gilbert followed strongly, looking back, knowing that the first blow had only stung the rest, and a second blow was needed to finish them off. Gilbert delivered it, and the rest (including a riveting two-up sprint) is Amstel Gold history.
Oh, and he did this with a bruised kidney, sustained from a nasty crash earlier in the race. I don’t know much about bruised kidneys, but apparently they aren’t bothered too much by pedaling, because Gilbert said he didn’t really notice the problem til after the race. Still... damn.
I liked the guy back in his FDJ days, when he would launch some hyper-aggressive attack from, oh, 75 km or so that he couldn’t quite pull off... until that day in 2006 when he broke through and won the Omloop Het Volk by attacking at a mere 27 km to go, a distance from which he had the strength to finish off the job. Two years later he launched from 50km to win another Het Volk. He was 25, kind of a curio, and swimming upstream against a tide of Classics studs like Boonen, Cancellara, Bettini, Valverde, Pozzato, Ballan, and on and on. But he was young and just getting started.
Then... Verviers, we have liftoff.
Gilbert switched to Silence-Lotto as he hit his prime, and immediately set about making history. First there was the not-exactly-traditional but still rather mind-boggling Autumn Double, where he won both the sorta-sprinty Paris-Tours and the climbers-only Giro di Lombardia. [I love being able to accurately use the old race names.] That was the headline, but the subhead would have added in Coppa Sabatini and the Giro del Piemonte, making for a scorching four-race hot streak capped by the Lombardia coup, his first monument.
Less memorable was the fact that he started the year with a spring campaign where he finished in the top four of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, results that could have served notice that, when he’s on, Gilbert can win on a pretty wide variety of courses. It says something that the only other riders to win the Autumn Double in the post-war era are Jo de Roo and Rik Van Looy. [I had to look up de Roo; this is elite company.]
In 2010 Gilbert wasn’t quite on the same hot form, but did manage third in de Ronde and a win at Amstel, a season most riders would consider the highlight of their lives. A year later, however, Gilbert turned in a performance that might never be equaled, winning De Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold, La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in a span of 12 days, not merely matching the rather suspect record of Davide Rebellin but doing him one better with the transitional Brabant win. I can’t tell you that he won every one of those races in the same swashbuckling style -- for example, his LBL win consisted of following an attack by the Schleck Brothers, where he was content to go to the line with the duo before hitting them on the head, stealing their lunch money, burning their homework and insulting their ancestors in the sprint. But he was a special rider in that time, combining his great strength with tactical brilliance and a confident sprint that nobody at the time could stop.
Then... Then? He went to BMC for multiple millions of dollars, how many I don’t know but enough to turn down a $3m offer from Quick Step. And something just didn’t click. The form didn’t return, the results never came, there seemed to be constant discomfort with the presence of Van Avermaet, who was there before Gilbert arrived and is still with the Swissbelgican outfit, probably reclining in a barca lounger at the ultra-posh service course in De Pinte right now while someone greases his pedals (not a metaphor). In the end BMC will go down as Van Avermaet’s team, and Gilbert’s time there, while marked by national and world championship success, won’t be remembered as anything but what might have been.
The numbers aren’t pretty. He was never better than 14th in the world at BMC, after a couple years in the top two and a third in rainbow, and sunk to 190th — palookaville — last year. He won Amstel once and took each of the three podium spots at Brabantse Pijl in that time, but made no dent in LBL or La Fleche. He won stages of the Vuelta and Giro but didn’t merit a Tour start after 2013.
The why of it all might have to wait for a tell-all biography when Gilbert retires or something. Maybe it was little more than too much Ardennes, not enough cobbles, maybe the pressure, maybe the incentive to be great got diluted ever so slightly down by all that money. Athletes are loathe to come out and say this, but it happens. Maybe they didn’t have the nerve to stack him and Van Avermaet against each other, for fear it would stoke disharmony, though this never seems to bother Quick Step. In any event, the easy thing would be to criticize BMC for simply misusing him, a task that gets harder with every Van Avermaet win — basically, all the other wins besides the Gilbert ones. BMC know something about how to win these races, even if they mishandled the asset they had in Gilbert.
The crazy part is that Van Avermaet’s style is nearly identical to Gilbert’s: the aggression, the risk-taking, and the confidence to come to the line and seal the deal against a rider or three. BMC have adequately supported him until Van Avermaet has been ready to take over the race. They could have deployed Gilbert in exactly the same way. So either they chose not to — and the fact that he missed de Ronde for four years says this — or when they did deploy him, he didn’t have the legs he has now.
Anyway, Swashbuckling Gilbert has been an incredible revelation, a resurrection story just in time for Easter. He has won with the type of tactical aggression that makes fans jump out of their seats, and has taken sprints even when, like yesterday, we didn’t expect him to win. It’s weird for me to want to celebrate Gilbert after years of seeing him as the overpaid BMC guy, but I am delighted at how delighted I am. Clearly some part of my brain remembers his early brilliance and how great a cyclist he was. That plus a truly classy Ronde win, and he’s more than OK in my book.
Watch the last two hours of Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race on Youtube. Click here.