Twelve months ago, Philippe Gilbert made a splash as he rolled out ‘Strive For Five’ – a neat new slogan designed to build excitement around his quest to complete the full set of cycling’s five Monuments. This year, as Deceuninck-Quick-Step gathered in Calpe for their traditional team presentation on Wednesday, the messaging was conspicuous by its absence.
“We decided to stop using that in our communications,” Gilbert said with a slightly embarrassed laugh. “But the idea behind it remains.”
Gilbert’s quest to become only the fourth rider in history to win all five Monuments was ignited by his victory at the 2017 Tour of Flanders in what was a storming Classics campaign on his return to the cobbles and his first season in QuickStep blue. Having won Liège-Bastogne-Liège – twice – and Il Lombardia, suddenly the only two he needed were Milan-San Remo – where he has twice finished on the podium – and Paris-Roubaix.
Yet, 2018 saw the momentum fade from his quest. He was 75th and out of the picture at Milan-San Remo, while he was 15th on what was only his second appearance at Paris-Roubaix. With his 36th birthday also ticking by, the measure of the challenge has not escaped him.
“I know it’s complicated. There’s one chance that happens, and many chances that don’t. But, still, it’s my motivation,” Gilbert insisted.
Whereas 2017 saw Gilbert win Flanders with an astonishing long-range solo, as well as winning Amstel Gold Race and the Three Days of De Panne, 2018 was the spring of his teammate Niki Terpstra. The Dutchman made his moves early and soloed to victory at Le Samyn, E3-Harelbeke, and the Tour of Flanders. Gilbert, who was forced into more of a watching brief in the group behind, finished on the podium in all three.
“It’s true that it was a bit frustrating, not being able to cross the line with the feeling of having done everything, and only coming second or third, but that’s how it is,” he said.
“I was never ‘blocked’ by Niki. The reason is not him. He was, simply, very very strong – I don’t think he’s ever been that strong in his life.
“At Quick-Step, we have a tactic, playing with multiple leaders, and it works. The proof is that some teams have started copying us. LottoNL-Jumbo, for example, have copied our tactic, Lotto Soudal have also tried to do it a few times. It’s true that when you play like that, you risk getting trapped. But that’s the game. The first year it went very well for me, the second year a bit less. That’s how it is.”
The goals for 2019
Gilbert will take aim at Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in what will once again be a full complement of major spring Classics in 2019. He will get his season underway in France at the Tour de Provence, before heading to the cobbles and hellingen of Belgium for the first time at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the start of March. He will then return to Paris-Nice, having opted for Tirreno-Adriatico last year, ahead of Milan-San Remo.
And it’s La Primavera that he reckons will be the toughest nut to crack. The race is delicately poised between sprinters and those who try to attack over the late climb of the Poggio. Naturally, Gilbert is only one possible card in the Quick-Step hand, with Elia Viviani among the favourites in the event of a sprint and 2017 podium finisher Julian Alaphilippe the sort of punchy rider who could win via the Poggio.
“Milan-San Remo is a goal, but we have two very strong candidates there,” Gilbert acknowledged. “It will not be easy for me.”
Neither will Paris-Roubaix, as Gilbert admitted his appearance last year was a learning curve.
“Even at my age, you learn new things. Last year I learned that you should always take bidons, even if you don’t need them, because they jump out of the cages on the cobblestones, and you don’t have enough drink.”
Other than the Classics, Gilbert’s main targets will come at the Tour de France in July, with the added motivation to win a stage in an edition that starts in his home country. Then come the World Championships on a Yorkshire course that would seem to offer a decent chance for him to claim a second rainbow jersey after Valkenburg in 2012.
“I’ve seen the profile of the course, but that’s a long way away – more than nine months,” he is quick to point out.
At 36, Gilbert knows that time is now longer on his side when it comes to the ‘Strive for Five’. He’s also coming to the end of his second contract at Quick-Step, with decisions on his future to be taken by the summer.
At the presentation Gilbert hinted that he regretted not joining Patrick Lefevere’s outfit sooner, and suggested he was keen to continue racing with the team into next year, though he will have options elsewhere.
“It’s Patrick who will decide. First of all, we’ll need to see how results go over the next few months. Patrick will decide, but if we could come to an agreement, that would be good,” Gilbert said.
“There have already been teams who have made enquiries and asked to talk. I don’t shut the door on anyone. Let’s see. Cycling is a small world, very insular, and you mustn’t ever shut doors.”
In any case, Gilbert is not entertaining any thoughts of retirement at this point.
“I’m lucky to be able to live out my passion, to be paid for my passion. There are people who spend 50 years doing a job they don’t like, not necessarily earning much money either. So if someone in my position says how difficult it is, they need to get some perspective – I don’t think we have the right to speak like that.”
The enjoyment is still there, it seems, and so is the motivation.
“My dream is to win big races – to re-win ones I have won before and, if possible, win the ones I haven’t.”