Due to a kidney injury sustained from a crash at the Amstel Gold Race, we didn’t get to see him at Liège–Bastogne–Liège, the Monument that goes past his home town of Remouchamps at the foot of the iconic Côte de la Redoute. Given he nevertheless won Amstel (not to mention the Tour of Flanders also) where he beat Michal Kwiatkowski in a two-up sprint, he would have likely been Alejandro Valverde’s greatest adversary at La Flèche Wallonne and L-B-L, which the evergreen Spaniard, and the first casualty of this year’s Grande Boucle, won with aplomb.
This year, however, Philippe Gilbert gets a second chance. Sort of.
Monday, Le Tour begins in his municipality of Verviers, province of Liège. And while the race does not end in the vicinity as it does in La Doyenne, a race he won in 2011, when one sees what remains after exactly 210.9 kilometres in the saddle, Gilbert is one of a handful of names that come to mind along with Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews and Kwiatkowski (so long as he’s allowed to roam free).
Mountain passes & hills
Km 18.0 - Côte de Sart: 2.8 kilometre-long climb at 5.1% - category 4
Km 105.5 - Côte de Wiltz: 3.1 kilometre-long climb at 4.8% - category 4
Km 120.5 - Côte d'Eschdorf: 2.3 kilometre-long climb at 9.3% - category 3
Km 197.0 - Côte de Villers-la-Montagne: 1.1 kilometre-long climb at 5.2% - category 4
Km 212.5 - Longwy - Côte des Religieuses: 1.6 kilometre-long climb at 5.8% - category 3
Just 1.6 kilometres of effort it, but there is enough about the day and the climb to the Côte des Religieuses to suggest a change of leadership may be afoot. Then again, our current maillot jaune is no slouch in such terrain and could hold onto yellow for a week or more.
For such an accomplished rider - 71 pro wins and counting - one might assume Gilbert has a handful of Tour stages to his credit, but in actuality he has just one. (He does, however, have three and five wins from the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, respectively.) It’s part because of the attention he and the teams he’s ridden for have placed on the Classics, where he has duly delivered, and part because when he’s gone to the Tour - which Gilbert has done seven times previously, reaching Paris on six occasions - the 34-year-old, who will turn one year older this Wednesday, has been instructed to ride at the service of others.
Gilbert, in fact, has not raced La Grande Boucle for four years. Riding for the BMC Racing Team during the 2012 Tour de France, he was asked to support defending champion Cadel Evans and Tejay van Garderen, who respectively finished seventh and fifth overall. The July following he was asked to do it again, but internecine rivalry saw the 2013 race turn into a Tour horribilis as Evans ran 39th and van Garderen 45th. Between 2014-16, Gilbert, who for the first three seasons at BMC Racing earned a reported three million Euros per season, was snubbed from both their cobbled Classics and Tour line-ups - ultimately precipitating his departure last season.
When he claimed his one and only Tour stage it was on the opening stage of the 2011 race, which finished on a climb not dissimilar to that of today. It also came off the back of a remarkable spring where, among a flurry of victories spread far and wide, he won the Ardennes triptych of Amstel, Flèche and Liège.
Will Phil Gil taste champagne and possibly even yellow again?
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says:
“Coincidence or destiny, the Tour will take off from Verviers, just two days before the 35th birthday of the city's native, Philippe Gilbert. And the day's course could well inspire the Wallonian. Indeed, the climb going up to the Longwy Citadel looks a lot like the Mont des Alouettes, where he had conquered his only stage win at the Tour in 2011. Whatever the outcome, the puncheurs will be on attacking soil, and the yellow jersey will be up for grabs.”
Finish line: Rue de Mercy (Longwy Haut), at the end of a 750m finishing straight (300m by line of sight) and after a climb of 1.6km at 5.8%. Width: 6m
Weather: 20°C and partly cloudy at start, 3% precipitation, 53% humidity, wind 13km/h WSW; 21°C and partly cloudy at finish, 1% precipitation, 54% humidity, wind 13km/h WSW.