Classics specialist Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing grew up within a stone’s throw of La Redoute, winning LBL in 2011 on the way to taking all three Ardennes Classics in the space of one week.
When did you first ride LBL?
In 2003, in my first year as a pro, so it will be 13 times [this year].
Can you describe the emotion of riding La Doyenne as a neo pro?
It was a surprise because I had a problem with my achilles tendon. I had it in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and had to stop riding for ten days, and then start training again. At Gent-Wevelgem it hurt again, so I had another ten days off.
And then Madiot called me on the Wednesday, the day of the Flèche Wallonne. I was there watching the race and he called me and said: “Come join us tomorrow because you’re going to race Sunday.”
To me, it was just a big surprise because, of course, I wasn’t ready: I didn’t have any training in the legs, but I was happy to be there at the start. I did 220km and then I stopped at the second feed zone, but it was a great experience.
I was with the best in the peloton until the Côte du Rosier. I passed the Côte de Wanne and Haute-Levée with the best. I was happy. I got dropped there and stopped 10km later.
Did it cross your mind even then that you could one day win LBL?
I was thinking it might be easier to win one of the Flemish Classics, because I always felt better in those races, but it happened that I won Liège first.
What part does La Redoute play in the modern version of Liège?
With the new finale, you are more conservative on La Redoute. It is still a long way to the finish, with a lot of climbs like Saint-Nicolas. Since they changed the course, everyone is just waiting on La Redoute. Maybe you’re with 30 or 40 guys after. It’s still a long way, so you wait because you still need your team-mates and you just hope they get back [to the leading group] and work for you again. As a leader, you don’t want to drop your own team-mates, so you just go easy.
Have you witnessed any big attacks on the climb?
Some guys accelerate there, but it’s always conservative. I remember Richie Porte attacked there, but he did 300 metres and then blew, and his chance was gone. It’s very early to launch a real attack.
Perhaps it is better suited to a selective attack?
I try to be there in front in case someone’s good. If one of the leaders is not feeling good, maybe you just want to open the race up, because you know his race is over. Sometimes it’s like this: you know you’re not going to win, but you want to do a move to flick other riders. This can always happen. It’s far from the finish, but if ten or 15 guys go and they all work together, they’re hard to catch. You have to be there watching and saving energy.
What about the atmosphere? It’s your climb, isn’t it?
For me, it’s very special because it’s my town. Everyone is there, all the supporters, people I’ve known since I was a kid. It’s very special for me. I don’t really have time to look at people, but I can recognise some faces that I’ve known for more than 30 years. It’s a special feeling.
Do you approach La Redoute differently now to when you were young and inexperienced?
It’s short and very steep. You have to be really conservative with the gears. A lot of riders use too big a gear, and they damage their legs. You have to focus. With the noise and the atmosphere, sometimes it’s hard. You feel the public is pushing you and you forget all the details. But when you have experience, it’s not a problem.
Roche aux Faucons is the other key climb, yes? Your springboard in 2011 and Nibali’s the following year?
Yeah, but it’s not about tactics: it’s just the legs there. Everything is about power. You go if you can, not if you want.
What type of rider wins Liège? It is not one for Grand Tour riders, for example.
I think we train differently. Those riders train more intensely, maybe every day. Classics riders train differently, with longer rides. You’re just more resilient at the end of the day.
Where does Liège stand on your palmarès?
It’s one of the top three moments of my career, along with winning a stage of the Tour and the maillot jaune, and the World Championships.
And you took all three Ardennes Classics the year you won LBL.
I was in good shape. I actually won four races: there was Flèche Brabançonne too – it’s also important to mention this, I think. So I’d won four races in ten days. I was happy, but at the same time, at the start, if I was able to swap them just for Liège [I would have], but I won all four. One hundred per cent!
Extract from Rouleur issue 53