'Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen.'
Back in the day, that's the advice I got from a few mates when I lamented why some less than savoury blokes always seemed to get the good-looking girls, and the good guys (that including me, of course) walked away with nothing but damaged pride.
Utterly counterintuitive, yet, as a high hormone teen and twenty-something with little in the way of life experience, it nevertheless appeared the only plausible explanation for such seemingly irrational behaviour.
"On Sunday, he broke a 37-year drought to become the first since Dutchman Jan Raas in 1979 to claim the Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold Race in a single season."
It was also a strategy used by former High Road boss Bob Stapleton with people like Mark Cavendish, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Matthew Goss, and, more recently, Quick Step team manager Patrick Lefevre with Philippe Gilbert.
It was a well-known fact that the California businessman never had the most money (to spend on his team, not personal wealth, that is; among cycling team bosses, he was the most vocal about the wages disparity created by the emergence of BMC Racing and Team Sky, what he called 'super-teams'). So, to compete without resorting to doping (which is what his predecessors at the T-Mobile team did), Stapleton, together with his canny band of sports directors that included Brian Holm, Ralf Aldag and Allan Peiper, had to make a series of Moneyball-style acquisitions, and incentivised salaries with performance-based bonuses.
From 2008 to 2011, as a collective, riders of High Road won more races than any other team. Unfortunately, though, the team became a victim of their own success, as the best performers were lured by outfits offering much higher salaries. To their credit, Cavendish and Goss stuck with the team till its demise at the close of the 2011 season, at which point their contracts went from a few hundred thousand Euros to well over a million. Ker-ching, ker-ching!
But those high-roller pay packets brought their own curse. Cavendish continued to win big, albeit not quite as much, while Goss, who transferred to GreenEDGE, would, over the next five years, notch just two individual victories before retiring at the end of 2016, aged just 30. Boasson Hagen, who joined the Manxman at Team Sky and dubbed by some pundits as the next Eddy Merckx ('Eddy the Boss', they called the Norwegian wunderkind), would also struggle; his 2013-15 seasons in particular were left wanting, although he seems to have found some semblance of his old self at Dimension Data. In the intervening period, when he was once considered unique, others have popped up like him, and have now eclipsed the 29-year-old - think Peter Sagan, Michal Kwiatkowski, Greg Van Avermaet and Michael Matthews.
2011 remains Gilbert's finest season: Strade Bianche and Brabantse Pijl; the Ardennes triple of Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège; the Belgian national time trial and road race championship; the opening stage and maillot jaune at the Tour de France; the Clásica de San Sebastián and Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec; and, unsurprisingly, finishing number one on the UCI WorldTour. BMC Racing, having won the Tour de France with Cadel Evans that year, now wanted to win more; they proceeded to acquire the 29-year-old puncheur from Verviers on a three-year contract for a reported three million Euros per season.
The year following, he would not win a race till the ninth stage of the Vuelta a España, then saved his season with a road world championship victory in Valkenburg, the same hunting ground that netted him a fourth Amstel Gold Race last Sunday. The next four seasons with BMC were not disastrous (among 14 wins, three Grand Tour stage victories and a third Amstel Gold crown), but for a man with his talent, pedigree and lofty standards, they were, more often than not, well below the Walloon's par. The rise and rise of team-mate Van Avermaet also saw him excluded from the cobbled Classics from 2013-16. Safe to say, they weren't exchanging Christmas cards.
At the end of last season, Gilbert, now 34 and seemingly past his prime, was presented with two solid options: outright Classics leadership at French Professional Continental team Fortuneo–Vital Concept - or stay in the WorldTour with Quick Step Floors, albeit at a reduced salary, though incentivised if success presented itself. Despite the Belgian-based outfit stacked with talent and with the cycling Twitterati musing when Phil Gil would get his own opportunity, if at all, he chose the latter.
On Sunday, he broke a 37-year drought to become the first since Dutchman Jan Raas in 1979 to claim the Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold Race in a single season (including Eddy Merckx, one of only three riders to accomplish such a same feat). Tom Boonen, for 15 years the talisman of Lefevre's line-up, has now retired. Yves Lampaert needs a few years more to strike big. French young-gun Julian Alaphilippe is out of the Ardennes triptych with knee problems. He is the man. And he likes being the man. Gilbert is back.
"Today's race was hard and we rode aggressively, but this is my favourite way of racing," he said after out-sprinting Kwiatkowski, the man who beat Sagan in a sprint at San Remo. "I'm not scared of this (style) and I'm very happy of how things panned out. My goal every season is to win a Classic. Now it is already two and this is maybe for the years I didn't win one." On the podium, he took all of four seconds to scull the beer presented to him, Kwiato and third-placed Albasini a few seconds longer.
He was due to front up Wednesday at La Flèche Wallonne alongside co-leader Daniel Martin, however a crash during the Amstel Gold later revealed a minor right kidney tear, likely precluding him from racing till the Giro d'Italia. "It's sad I won't be there for the remaining races of this week, because I was in great condition, but our squad is a strong one and I'm confident other good results will follow."
So am I. There's something to be said for that aforementioned expression, after all.