When he came to Québec, Belgian National Champion Philippe Gilbert (Omerga Pharma Lotto) was on the hunt for six UCI points in order to re-claim the top of the WorldTour standings. Simply said Gilbert wants to be number one.
Not only did Gilbert get those points, but he finished the weekend with one victory and a third-place finish, giving him an unassailable 124-point lead in the UCI standings.
“It’s a dream to become number one in the world and especially to finish the season number one.” Gilbert said after winning the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec. “For me, 2011 will always be a really exceptional year with great victories and the cherry on top is to finish number one.”
The 29-year old Walloon also found something else in La Belle Province, he discovered fans, lots and lots of fans.
“In Montreal and Quebec, I received tremendous support, a bit similar to Belgian races. For me, it was a big surprise to be recognized by the Canadian public.” Gilbert said after the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal.
Gilbert was so surprised but the outpouring that he asked for a microphone to address the crowd, first in French then in English, from the podium in Montreal.
“I wanted to thank publicly all my supporters here because it’s something that brought me happiness and I see that cycling isn’t only loved in Europe or Belgium but everywhere in the world, it’s something positive for our sport.”
Claiming lesser form, the Quebec race was no cake walk for him. “I was stressed throughout the race because I was often alone, especially in the finale. Those are situations that I’m not used to anymore. Through the year, I had teammates with me until almost the finish.” said Gilbert in Quebec. Two days earlier, he had lauded his team for their support throughout the year.
“It was also a stressful day today because I had to win those little six points, it looks small but at the same time they are hard to win. Everyone knew that I wanted to get those points.” he explained.
“But as the race went on, I was feeling better and better and the scenario was getting better for me too. By that, I mean that the front group was reduced, there was just a few of us left at the end. When I saw that we were ten, I knew that even if something happened, that if I finished at the worst third or fourth, I would take enough points to win. From that moment on, I was liberated, I had more strength because I knew that I would get the points and that I could try to win the race. For me it was an ideal situation.”
Gilbert came out swinging again in Montreal two days later. After crashing, he made it back to the front group with the help of a teammate. He put in a monster pull on the climb up Mont-Royal with two laps to go only to sit up with the break in sight when others would not work with him. In the end, Gilbert opened up his sprint with 500 meters to go to claim another podium.
This past weekend, Gilbert notched his twenty-second victory in 2011 – so far that is. An exceptional year that included winning Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, making him the first Belgian to win all three Ardennaises in the same year.
Gilbert said that he does realize what he accomplished his year. “I was aware of what I did, I always enjoyed every moment so for me, it was a waking dream that I had for the past nine months. It’s really something extraordinary, all those moments will remain in my memory for life and in my supporters’ memories. I think that I really surpassed a level this year. Last year was a great season but this year was really a ‘saison de grand cru’. It’s really something superb.”
He has also won a stage at the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France and two stages at the Vuelta a España. Some have said that he has the potential of winning the Tour.
“I have no idea.” he replied when asked if he would make the three-week grand tour a goal in the future.
“It’s true that there was a lot written and said on that subject. Eddy Merckx did say that I was capable of winning the Tour, and if Eddy Merckx says it, everyone repeats it.”
“A lot of people talked about it but for me, I don’t think about it at all. I’m focused entirely on the one-day races, races that I love, races that I can win. I’m always able to be on form when I need to be, for me it works well. I also don’t feel the need to change the way I train.”
“And my weight.” added the 158-pound, 5’8” rider. “If I want to win a three-week Grand Tour, than I have to lose even more weight, something extremely difficult for me. One-day races are well suited for me, I don’t feel like changing. Three week races are really hard, mentally I don’t know if I’m capable of staying at that level for three weeks and I’m not someone that will race for second, third or fourth place. So I really need to be convinced that I can win a Grand Tour before I start preparing for it and for now, I’m not convinced.”
The Classics specialist can count victories at Paris-Tours (twice), the Giro di Lombardia (twice) and Amstel Gold Race (twice), Clásica de San Sebastián and Paris-Brussels in his palmares.
With so many prestigious victories under his belt, is there anything left to accomplish?
“Happily yes.” he replied with a laugh when I asked him that question. “My dream is to win all the Great Classics of the world. For me, there are three big races left to win, Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I hope to win those in the future.”
And then there’s the Maglia Rosa. “And also I’d like to also wear the pink jersey at the Giro. I won a stage in each of the Grand Tours and I wore the leader’s jersey at the Vuelta and at the Tour de France and I would like to wear the Giro d’Italia pink jersey. That would also be something exceptional. There are a lot of dreams left, they motivate me and help me progress also.”
Gilbert is not done racing this year. He will lead the Belgium team at the World Championships in Copenhagen.