After Fabian Cancellara won last year’s Ronde-Roubaix double, the talk immediately turned to whether or not the Swiss rider could win all five Monuments—adding Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy to his résumé. This year, following his his historic “quadruple”, Philippe Gilbert—the most versatile of today’s classic specialists—is the latest to possess a legitimate chance to win all five of cycling’s most historic races. Here’s a look at his chances in the three races he lacks:
1. Milano-San Remo: The last two times MSR was not won in a sprint were 2003 by Paolo Bettini and in 2008 when Fabian Cancellara made a last-gasp attack, taking advantage of a road closure in the finale. (Yes, 2011 was won in a small sprint, but weather and crashes played a big role and we can’t all spend the day waiting for Godot.)
Bettini’s win deserves a closer look. He tried quite a few times, and when he finally “figured it out” several factors were at play:
1. Repeated attacks on the Cipressa and the Poggio resulted in two teams, QuickStep and Saeco, having two men each in a break: Bettini and Luca Paolini, and Mirko Celestino and Danilo Di Luca respectively. This means the break had 4 riders motivated to cooperate at least until the finish.
2. Paolini was a more-than-decent descender. In the previous year, Bettini managed to snap the elastic on the ascent only to lose most of his gap on the descent. His 2002 attempt brought 5 other riders, but they all rode against each other. Giuliano Figueras of Ceramiche-Panaria eventually decided to work with Bettini but both were caught by a raging peloton 400 meters from the line.
Coming back to Gilbert, it is clear that he can attack and snap the elastic on the Cipressa and the Poggio. The question is, who will come with him and be willing to work with him? Pippo Pozzato has been a straw man in the last few editions, strong enough to follow but either too physically or tactically weak to want to cooperate. In 2011, a whittled-down field meant the race came down to a small group sprint, but while Gilbert made a showing in the end and netted a podium, I don’t see this happening with a large group and I don’t see a small group finish happening often. The last few editions have seen non-sprinters try to make a break on the climbs, but the sprinters’ teams manage to pull it all together again.
What Gilbert Needs to Do: Have an experienced and well-drilled team apply enormous pressure starting from La Manie. Sprinters’ teams can try to nullify attacks, but what’s the point if their sprinters’ legs are cooked? Continue the burn on Cipressa, and finish with a coup de grace on the Poggio.
Gilbert’s Chances: 9/10.
2. Ronde van Vlaanderen: No matter how much I think a Walloon winning RVV could solve the Belgian identity crisis once and for all, I rate Gilbert’s chances of winning very low. Here’s why:
The Kappelmuur’s role is well-known and well-anticipated. It often re-shuffles the cards in the race. A strong Gilbert can make a gap there, with a handful of seconds to spare heading into the Bosberg. Unfortunately, what comes after the Bosberg is a very fast, mostly downhill section to the finish in Ninove, just long enough to favor a re-grouping if there’s more than one motivated rider in a chase group. We saw this in 2011. Not many can make a last-gasp attack towards the finish line, and those who do usually don’t win.
If Gilbert were to win, it would have to be from a small, but motivated group such as when Alessandro Ballan out-ran Leif Hoste in 2007. But now Gilbert is a feared rider, so who would dare go with him? He will have to force a selection on de Muur or earlier, creating a small group to race with him through the Bosberg to the finish line.
Gilbert seems to agree: “Flanders is relatively flat and that allows some to take profit of another rider. Defensive tactics are easier and it pays off in cash. In [Amstel] the best riders are in front and everybody has to go flat out. In Liège [-Bastogne-Liège] it’s even harder.”
What Gilbert Needs to Do: I think Gilbert needs a super-lieutenant to be successful in this race, or at least a reliable helper with the endurance to survive from a breakaway. Flanders allows for a significant defensive game and having a talented rider in the early break means competing teams and leaders have to spend extra energy—every small deficit helps him make a selection on the Muur. He needs to then drill this select group through the Bosberg, and finish it off in the finale. Attack too early and he may end up running out of fuel before the finish—unless he able to drag some other favorites with him.
Gilbert’s Chances: 6/10.
3. Paris-Roubaix: Gilbert hasn’t ridden this for many years, although he did win the race formerly known as Het Volk twice by attacking on the pavé. Recently, he has skipped the race, in favor of Amstel and Liege. That said, he has said that he does not want to repeat Michele Bartoli’s mistake of forsaking Roubaix until the twilight of his career. And as recent editions have demonstrated, there are many, many ways to win the Hell if the North.
Gilbert is not likely to win from a sizeable group, but he may just have enough strength to force a selection. His win in the 2006 Het Volk showed that he can outrun riders on the pavé. He made a solo effort to bridge to Pippo Pozzato’s lead group, and attacked from there to win alone. And while many may think of Het Volk as a race more similar to de Ronde, recent editions feature several pavé sectors, and this one had seven in the finale.
Thus, if OmegaPharma-Lotto (or whichever team he rides for) would invest in a more ambitious pave squad, I rate Gilbert’s chances as very good. Interestingly, the latest edition aside, modern Roubaix outcomes hint that it is possible to win by sheer strength alone, even without a strong supporting team. Both Cancellara and Boonen showed that they could drop their own squad members and dispense with opposition single-handedly. This means good news for Gilbert’s weaker cobble team.
What Gilbert Needs to Do: Learn the race, and by this we mean (please) start riding Roubaix. The event rewards experience enormously. A well-timed acceleration in the last 20km will then be the prescription.
Gilbert’s Chances: 8/10.
So can Gilbert win all five Monuments? He has a fair chance, although the wins might not come in the order his fans would like. Belgians would love for him to win de Ronde and Roubaix; however, I think his chances in San Remo are much higher. He knows his way around the course; he knows what it takes to win; and all he needs is a little more luck (and less Pozzato).
Similarly, he knows his way around de Ronde, and is well aware of the difficulties in winning it. Paris-Roubaix may take a few years for him to truly learn to race. But when he does figure it out, his win will be hailed as tactical genius.
A big factor in all this is that Gilbert himself admitted that his cobbles squad is weaker than it was before. With a banner year and extremely happy sponsors, the opportunity may come for him to demand better supporting riders tailored to the races he wants to win—assuming Omega Pharma-Lotto is around for 2012, that is.
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