The Belgian won Grand Prix d'Isbergues – his first race in two months – after attacking from kilometer zero.
Not only that he defied the doctors' initial prognosis, who were skeptical we could even return by the end of the season, but on his first outing since suffering that frightening knee injury on stage 16 of the Tour de France, Philippe Gilbert returned with a bang, taking the victory at the 72nd Grand Prix d'Isbergues after a memorable ride, which served as confirmation of his never-say-die attitude and fantastic commitment of always being on the top and giving everything, regardless of the race and the conditions.
"I've worked so hard to get back here today. Honestly, there have been some difficult moments when I have been at home fighting to make this comeback. I have had a great team around me at home but you still have to do the work yourself, to put in the energy and focus. After my crash, some of the most positive opinions I heard were that I should be happy if I were back on the bike within four months. Now I am already back after two months and I took my first victory of the season. My goal was to get a win in this last part of the season. I know it was a bit crazy and 99% of the riders would probably just be happy to come back, but I really believed I could do it."
Fifteen years after making his first appearance at the French event, Philippe returned as part of a strong Quick-Step Floors squad and immediately animated the race which took place in heavy rain that forced the organizers to cut the course to 175 kilometers. The inclement weather didn't stop the 36-year-old from attacking early and forcing an important selection, a strong 18-man group – which featured also teammate and Textielprijs Vichte winner Florian Sénéchal – emerging from the peloton after the first kilometers.
The gap between the leaders and the bunch hovered at all times around three minutes, but with the escapees working well together, that margin couldn't be erased by the pack, who all that could do was reduce it to two minutes inside the final 40 kilometers. That was the cue for Philippe to accelerate again, taking just seven riders with him, before another surge, this time with 20 kilometers to go, that saw him get clear together with Christophe Laporte (Cofidis).
As the duo opened a 20-second gap on the chasers, Florian rode away from the second group and pushed on until he could see the leaders under the flamme rouge arch. That allowed Philippe to play it cool in the finale, before launching the sprint and taking his first victory of the season, on a perfect day for Quick-Step Floors, which Sénéchal rounded off by finishing third.
"The weather was really tough, especially in the final, when the temperatures dropped, but I actually felt good and was really confident. When attacking with Laporte, we took advantage of the slippery roads from the rain and some tricky corners by going to the limit a few times, and in the last kilometers, seeing that Florian was coming from behind, I could save a bit of energy. In the final, I just felt I couldn't lose."
What's next for Philippe, the 15th different Quick-Step Floors rider to score a victory this year, after his imperious ride in Isbergues, a race a Belgian hadn't won for 13 years until today? "I am just really happy that I got to taste the victory too in what has been a fantastic year for the team. Now I am looking forward to what the rest of the season can bring me. Nothing is impossible on this team, and you could see that today! What a day it has been for us, taking two victories, at the Worlds in Innsbruck and here. It's just fantastic to be part of the Wolfpack!"
Photo credit: ©Bruno Bade Photo