Philippe Gilbert v. Greg Van Avermaet

I just wrote this up for fun…

I had intended to spend a post devoted to the awesomeness of BMC’s 2012 team. And I will. Today, however, will be devoted to the world’s best rider and recent BMC signee, Philippe Gilbert.

Confession: I have long been a huge Gilbert fan boy. At this point though, I think it’s reasonable to turn around to everyone and ask – is that not the case with you too? How can you not be?

The man is thrilling to watch. He’s a winner in the truest sense of the word. You give him any chance, and he’ll win. Typically, the ‘any chance’ part means any hill within 10k of the finish. In 2012, it was like clockwork. He won over and over and over again with startling regularity. It always felt the same: explosive attacks in the final kilometers, a short solo jaunt, and a triumphant flash of the arms…or if it was an uphill finish, the action was a mere formality (see: Liege, Amstel, and the win that still has my jaw scraping the tiles – La Fleche Wallonne)

By the time he won the Clasica San Sebastian in late July, we weren’t even holding our breath anymore. The finale of San Sebastian barely had a hill in it either. I think you could call that one a ramp, and ramp he did. For the umpteenth time in 2011, he left the world’s best gasping, looking silly.

His performances this year made me giddy. I’m sitting here right now watching a highlight reel of his wins from 2011, and I just can’t help but get excited and want to go ride my bike. Gilbert notched 18 wins in 2011 – in a season that spanned from February to October. That includes: the Ardennes treble of Amstel, Fleche, and Liege (don’t forget the semi-Ardennes race of the Brabantse Pijl), the Belgian National Road AND Time Trial Championships, a stage and yellow at the Tour de France, the Strade Bianche…**and many more. Those are just the wins that are typically season-definers. A good rider would call it a successful year with one of those wins, maybe two, plus some solid placings.

In other words, the best way to describe Philippe Gilbert’s season has to be the words of Mark Cavendish on Twitter following Gilbert’s storming stage win at the Tour de France. Replace ‘today’s last kilometer’ with ‘the 2011 season’.

“Just saw today’s last kilometer. Gilbert humbled everyone with the equivalence of pulling down his pants to reveal a 13 incher. #yikes

Through all of this rampant success, Gilbert seemed to keep a humble air.  He’s a hard-working poster child of the clean racing years, a hero in his hometown, a simple man who studied horticulture (I love that fact). Dumb comments never fall from his mouth, his words always a picture of professionalism.

Until this week that is.

While receiving his nth award for a season that will live forever in the record books as one of the best in the past twenty years (if not more – trying to not exaggerate), Gilbert let loose on his BMC teammate for 2012, Greg Van Avermaet, following recent amicable comments by Van Avermaet that more or less said – I think I had a pretty good year in 2011 (he did), and I hope I’ll have a chance to play my own cards every once and again in 2012 (he should).

“Greg has potential, but he has to be realistic. In the finale of Liege, he only took one turn at the front, and then he was dropped and lost a minute. If he was really strong, he would have gone all the way to the finish. He showed his limits, and he who shows his limits can’t lay claim to being a leader at BMC.”

Ouch.

These could be the words of a man not to be trifled with, someone along the lines of a Bernard Hinault, or they could signal a very distinct change.

I’d like to think that they’re honest words meant to dispel any idea of conflict for the leadership position in any race that Philippe Gilbert takes part in, but it just doesn’t feel that way. The unsettled feeling of – oh no, there goes another hero, and he’s not even a doper – was further twisted in my guts when Twitter talk ensued that Gilbert has begun charging for interviews. Charging. As in euros/dollars/pounds for a chance to speak with the King. Of course, as a mediocre journalist, I haven’t confirmed that, but it just goes well with the bad tasting stew I’m brewing, ok?

Back to the facts. There was no reason for Gilbert to comment on Van Avermaet like that. Nothing good can come of saying that. Why would you want to slam a teammate in public, who will likely be one of your most trusted aids when the race comes to its decisive moments? Gilbert complained (rightly so) about the lack of support he received in some crucial moments this year with Omega Pharma-Lotto. And yet, here he just joined a team that could escort him to the finish line over and over again in 2012…for a reported five million euros per year…and the first thing he says is – don’t even think about it, Greg?

Whether you agree with the statement or not (I personally think he’s not wrong at all to have that conviction), it’s undeniable that the media was not the place to voice that. It didn’t come in the heat of the moment post-race, nor did it follow some period of woeful luck or misfortune. This was Gilbert at his theoretically most relaxed and easy-going – and he let that fly out of his mouth? Discussions like that should be reserved only for one’s team, especially if you’re the baddest man on two wheels in the world (sorry, Fabian, you’ll have to retake that title in 2012).

BMC is so talent-laden next year, it borders on absurdity (as I said before, I’ll take a closer look at that later). It’s going to be a huge struggle to keep some of those egos in line. As THE one day hilly classic guy, Gilbert’s dominance is unquestioned. Van Avermaet certainly didn’t question it – he just said that he hoped he’d get some chances at some point. In a properly functioning team, he should get his chance. All eyes were on Gilbert in 2011, team directors and riders will be sprouting third eyes in 2012 to better cope with the menace. Teams will ride against him. He could well end up looking like Cancellara in 2011 without a powerful team to protect him from all that negativity (which would be nice, because Cancellara’s whining about negative racing was truly painful). Then again, he could just end up winning everything again, but that’s less likely than the other possibility. It is a bike race after all, and there are a lot of possible winners every time you toe a start line…even if Emperor Gilbert is in attendance.

Apparently, in Gilbert’s mind, since they will be racing almost the identical schedule in 2012, that means never.

If ever there was a time that Greg Van Avermaet comes off the saint though – it was here.

“Philippe and I have the same program, because we’re the same kind of rider. I’m three years younger and just like he did three years ago, I won Paris-Tours this year. I’d love to be on the same schedule as him. We’ve got the same character. I want to be the best too and win as many races as possible, because I’m ambitious.”

Unfortunately for ol Greg, he’s got the same schedule as Gilbert, and since Gilbert is likely targeting bigger and better in 2012, that just means – sorry about your luck, Chuck – enjoy your year as my indentured servant, and then get the hell out of here in 2013.

Van Avermaet must not have read the fine print in his 2012 contract though, because he seems to think he’ll be racing as a free man with race winning rights and equal opportunities: “[Paris-Tours] really freed me. It’s given me confidence, but it’s also given me another dimension within my team. I’m going to have more freedom. It’s a step forward for the future.”

I get the impression that won’t be the case. Do you find yourself feeling bad for Van Avermaet? I do. The guy just had the breakout season we’ve always speculated he could pull off, and what does he get in return? Philippe Gilbert and a don’t even think about it royal order from His Majesty.

BMC will win no matter what in 2012. If their team can really come together and somehow become a real team – they could be one of the greatest teams ever to race.

With comments like that from Gilbert, it looks unlikely. Van Avermaet doesn’t seem the kind of rider that’s just going to roll over either. There’s your first conflict in the BMC superteam. Who’s going to step up to be case study #2?

I think it’s fair to say that Gilbert could win at least ten races next year with a bunch of beer-bellied weekend warriors at his beck and call, but isn’t it worth keeping in mind that he might possibly be able to win 25, if he takes the reins and shows his teammates a level of respect that they deserve?

Not only that, when you make a statement like that, as VeloNews’s Neal Rogers pointed out on Twitter the other day – it makes it far too clear that the only card in your hand wears black, yellow, and red. What happens if Greg Van Avermaet goes up the road in a dangerous move in that specific time in a big race where those moves have a real shot at succeeding? It’s hard to play the GVA card if Gilbert himself slams his fist to the table and says he’s the only gambling parlor in town.

What happens if it’s Cadel Evans up the road? Will Gilbert treat Evans – a former winner of Fleche Wallonne – the same way?

Is the collected mass of talent on BMC going to just team time trial their way around the Classics, escorting Gilbert to the finish line to work his voodoo? I can vaguely see the annoying nicknames for this phenomenon now – something to do with a Train or Express. Just put me out of my misery now if that’s the case.

I’m not ready to sound the alarm just yet or turn in my membership card to the Philippe Gilbert is my hero club, but it certainly doesn’t bode well. Keep in mind – it’s just now December. If the rumblings have begun at this point, imagine what they could sound like come April.

My biggest fear is that we might be ushering in a new era – when Philippe Gilbert becomes the arrogant superstar that’s easy to hate. That would really bum me out. Then again, it would be pretty excellent to root wholeheartedly for Fabian Cancellara to give Gilbert a good drubbing the last time up the Paterberg in Flanders next April…

Imagine a world where Gilbert could make Fabian Cancellara look humble. This could be entertaining!

Thoughts? Write me! jeredgruber@gmail.com

(Quotes originally from dhnet.be - lovingly borrowed from CyclingNews.com)

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