Philippe Gilbert is one of my favourite riders on the World Tour – since he debuted with Francaise Des Jeux back in 2003, the man has done enough to be considered a living legend.
His first year in the pro peloton brought the Points Classification and a stage win at the Tour de l’Avenir, no small feat that.
2004 and especially 2005 saw a raft of wins in minor races, but it was in 2006 that the Belgian started to show his colors, flashing his peacock tail to take the mini-classic Omloop Het Volk with a raging series of attacks that saw him ride the last 7km alone.
In 2009 he again won Omloop and claimed the victory at Paris-Tours also, signaling to anyone with a modicum of bike sense that this was a serious prospect for just about any one day honor he set his sights on.
In 2010 he won Paris-Tours again, claimed the 20th stage in the Giro and managed his first ever Monument win in the Giro di Lombardia, a race he would win again the next year too.
Lombardia suited him, with its rolling hills and snaking lanes, but interestingly he was also third at the Tour of Flanders in 2010.
And who can forget his year of brilliance, 2011? He seemed to be able to win at will, with scintillating victories at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Amstel Gold Race, La Feche Wallone and the first stage of the Tour de France, among others.
It was an incredible run of form that brought him the accolade of the Number One ranked rider in the UCI World Tour for 2011.
He signed for BMC Racing for 2012 and things generally began to come apart for Gilbert – which might seem a ridiculous statement coming in the year he won the World Championships on the road, but it’s true nonetheless.
Later, Gilbert put his dip in form down to deviating from his usual training plan to adhere to the one devised for him by the BMC coaches, and also to a switch of pedals and saddle.
But whatever lessons were there to be learnt after a generally unimpressive 2012 didn’t seemed to have been heeded as the 2013 season unfolded.
Gilbert had a dismal season in the Rainbow jersey and was in serious danger of going winless through the year, something which would have had those who believe in the ‘Curse of the Rainbow Jersey’ frantic.
He finally managed a victory at the 2013 Vuelta a Espana on Stage 12, in what was undoubtedly his worst season, win-wise, as a pro.
And so on to 2014, and Gilbert has high hopes for a victory at Milan-San Remo.
Speaking at the unveiling of a new finish for the Italian Classic earlier this week, Gilbert said he was, “happy to see that San Remo is better for me and I will focus on this.
“San Remo is a race I love and I would love to win. I’ve been on the podium a few times and I’m still convinced I can win this and now even more.
“The riders make the race, but if we climb that climb with real climbing speed, I don’t see any sprinters – apart from [Peter] Sagan of course – being able to follow,” Gilbert said.
“Sagan is the exception, because he can climb, sprint and even [time trial], but the other sprinters, I don’t see a chance for them.”
Gilbert already knows a win at Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders is beyond him, partly because of his size (at 67kg he can’t compete with the likes of the 80kg-plus Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara) and partly because of the routes of those two races (Roubaix is too flat and the climbs of Flanders come too far from the finish).
But with the arrival of Sagan – whom Gilbert correctly points out as the main man for San Remo – the Belgian has an adversary that can beat him at his own game.
Sagan can and surely will win several Classics in the years to come, and was just pipped into second last year in San Remo by Gerald Ciolek. He won Gent-Wevelgem with a brilliant solo effort, as well as a host of other races.
His second at Flanders, to an incandescent Cancellara, was a great result even though he didn’t win.
Last year Sagan put down the markers for the older riders, announcing he has the legs not just to win the hard-men Classics like Roubaix and Flanders, but also the Classics more suited to the traditional all-rounders such as Gilbert.
For Gilbert – can he win Milan-San Remo? It’s a no for me. With fast men like Sagan and Marcel Kittel improving all the time, I can’t see him ever having another 2011.
And the other Classics where Gilbert has conquered all in the past? Pit a 100% fit Sagan against a 100% fit Gilbert, and I’d say the Slovenian gets the nod every time.