Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert is aiming to bring the curtain down on a stellar season so far when he lines up with a third consecutive victory in mind at the Giro di Lombardia on Saturday. For the past two years Gilbert has brought his season to a close in sensational fashion at the 106-year-old Italian classic known affectionately as the ‘Race of the Falling Leaves’. But a third consecutive win in Lecco would be special for a man who has been the outstanding performer in cycling’s hillier classics throughout 2011, and arguably the biggest star of the 2011 peloton.
Gilbert started the season by winning the famous Italian race Montepaschi Strade Bianche, which includes 70 kilometres of gravel roads before going on a four-race victory streak which has etched his name in the history books. After winning Brabantse Pijl, a Belgian semi-classic, Gilbert defended his title at Holland’s sole one-day classic, the Amstel Gold Race, after a perfectly timed escape on the Cauberg climb. A similarly timed move on the much steeper Mur de Huy allowed Gilbert to win the Fleche Wallonne semi-classic in Belgium, and left him as the bookies favorite to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the oldest cycling classic still in existence. Four days later the tactically-astute Belgian did not fail to deliver when he defied the presence in the hilly finale of Luxembourg siblings Andy and Frank Schleck, to leave the pair below him on the podium in Ans just outside the Walloon city.
In winning Amstel, Fleche and Liege, Gilbert became only the second rider in history, after Davide Rebellin in 2004, to win what is known as the Ardennes classics in the same year. Practically unstoppable, Gilbert went on to win the Tour of Belgium and the Belgian road and time trial titles. At the Tour de France where he claimed his maiden stage win on the opening day to pull on the race’s yellow jersey. A three-week long battle with Mark Cavendish for the race’s green jersey ensued, with the British sprint ace prevailing.
However Gilbert put his credentials back on display almost immediately by winning the San Sebastian Classic for the first time a week after July’s three-week epic. Victories followed in the Eneco Tour, where he won stage three, and at the inaugural Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec, where he took over as the world number one from Australia’s Tour de France winner Cadel Evans.
At last year’s Tour of Lombardy Gilbert defied wet and windy conditions to beat Italian Michele Scarponi by a dozen seconds, forging his win on the tough 9.5km, 6.6 percent gradient Sormano climb at the 41km to go mark. He went on to clinch victory after a 20km flat stretch on the shores of Lake Como, leading into the final climb at San Fermo della Battagila.
Like last year, Gilbert missed out on victory at Paris-Tours when the French classic was held last week. However that is likely to count little as the Belgian faces the threat of like-minded champions such as Italian Damiano Cunego, looking for his fourth win, Scarponi, Vincenzo Nibali and Spanish duo Samuel Sanchez, the Olympic champion, and Joaquim Rodriugez. Arguably going in his favor is the inclusion of a new finish which includes a 3km-long slog to Villa Vergano with gradients touching 15 percent near the summit, 9km away from the finish.