The Real King of Belgium: Gilbert v Boonen

The Belgian Champions jersey could be claimed quite legitimately to hold a curse. This striking image above would be cited as evidence for this. From the 2009 Paris-Tours, it shows a moment in time that captures what at the time was a seemingly seismic shift in the influence of riders over a nation. Two Belgians, one a French speaker, the other Flemish, on the opposing Belgian teams whose fates seemed to mirror that of their figureheads, having just charged down the Grammont to decide the race (Borut Bozic was in the final break as well out of interest), and it was the man clad in red rather then the flag of Belgium who took the win. For it was Gilbert, then 27, who had just successfully defended his Paris-Tours crown by doing what only a couple of years earlier would have been impossible – defeating Tom Boonen in a sprint finish. In the next nine days, Gilbert won the Coppa Sabatini, Giro Piemonte and the Tour of Lombardy. In doing so, he became the Cycling Flandrian of the Year, his run of wins beating Boonen’s third Paris-Roubaix win. With Boonen on the slide, the defeat at the hands of his countryman seemed to show that there was a new King of Belgium – Gilbert.

And yet contrast that picture with the above. Again, we see the man in the Belgian jersey, again, indefeat, although not to Boonen. Instead, Gilbert had slipped, in what seemed like a disastrous way, to 3rd at Fleche Wallone, 6th at Amstel Gold and 16th at Liege-Bastonge-Liege, races in which he had destroyed the competition the year before. A month before, Boonen had done precisely that with the field at the cobbled classics field, adding a third Tour of Flanders, a fourth Paris-Roubaix and about ten other records to his palmares. He had been reborn, whilst his previous conqueror was sliding away.

Of course, this is all a tad melodramatic. Gilbert would finish the year as World Champion  before being deposited on the road at the Tour of Lombardy again, and Boonen was left with dreams of what might of been after finishing in the top three of the field sprint at the Olympics behind the winning breakaway. And yet it is odd: Gilbert is still perceived as the better rider of the two. He is frequently cited as the man most capable of winning the Five Monuments from the current generation for instance, even though Boonen has actually come the closest to winning the most: he has won two (Flanders and Roubaix) and has a second place at Milan San-Remo (2010), whilst Gilbert has two in Liege-Bastonge-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy, but only third in Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders. Yes, so that means Gilbert has done best across the board, but he hasn’t come closest.

But of course, whilst checklists seem to be the new thing in cycling (see Bradley ‘I’ve won the Tour’ Wiggins as he moves onto the Giro), and Gilbert might have better results in the Monuments across the board, he certainly doesnt have the quantity. Boonen can make claim to be the most decorated cobbled classics cyclist ever seen, with a whopping seven monuments to his name, which puts him 8th in the all time list behind illustrious names such as Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Coppi, Kelly and Van Looy. Gilbert has a comparatively measly three, joint 31st, and third on a list of current riders behind Fabian Cancellara, who has a Milan-San Remo, a Flanders and two Paris-Roubaix’s to his credit.  Even if both now have the ‘6th Monument’ in a world championships title, it seems Gilbert is judged more on what he is deemed capable of achieving then what he actually has achieved, whilst conversely, Boonen has the palmares to demonstrate his champion of the ages credentials.

For Boonen does posess the far greater palmares, even if it is assumed Gilbert is capable of greater things. Gilbert arguably has the more diverse portfoilio, with stages in all three Grand Tours, although Boonen has more quantity in this field, and a greater range of classics – he has won on the gravel of the Strade Bianche, on the cobbles of Het Volk and in the hills of San Sebastian and Lombardy, whilst Boonen has somewhat of a cobbled classics monopoly. However, Boonen also has a green jersey from the Tour, has worn yellow like Gilbert, and the fact he has won all but one Cobbled classic, and all of those more then once, show the complete domination he has in that field. This will be the reason why Boonen is currently the more likely to go down as the great Belgian rider of his generation – he has had more then one annus mirabilis.

Boonen has arguably suffered like Gilbert did in 2012 for the simple reason that he was brilliant very young – 3rd at Roubaix at 21 was sign, but the Flanders-Roubaix-Worlds triple in 2005 was remarkable. This created a situation however where anything less would be seen as a disappointment, and so whilst winning Flanders as world champion glossed over 2nd at Roubaix, it is odd that his 2008-2011 where seen as poor years. In 2008, Boonen won Paris-Roubaix and two stages of the Vuelta – not exactly awful – then in 2009 defended his cobblestone trophy as well as being national champion. Even the real ‘dirth’ years of his career, 2010-11, where if you read certain people, you’d think he was passed it, yielded remarkable results – 2nd at Milan San-Remo and the Tour of Flanders in 2010, 1st at Ghent Whevelghem and 4th at Flanders in 2011. In essence, Boonen is judged against an incredibly harsh set of expectations, whilst Gilbert has been able to build steadily – Het Volk, Paris-Tours, winning Lombardy, defending Lombardy, the Ardennes Triple. It was all progressive, and so whilst Boonen appeared to be going backwards, Gilbert marched forward, creating a skewed comparison.

Perhaps then, it would be fairer to judge the pair on their social impacts. Gilbert has a particular claim to fame here: he was for a while touted as the man most likely, and in total seriousness, to untie the divided Belgium, which saw another of its periods without Government from 2007-2011. Perhaps in the future, historians will try to link his incredible 2011 with the end of that turmoil. The fact he is a Walloon, rather then a Flandrian, is of important political significance in the divided nation, which meant winning the Walloon classics all the more important. Boonen though was the male sports icon of the decade, featuring in adverts for Nivea for Men, for burgers, for everything. Sure, his cocaine positives where a blotch on the record, but they have essentially been forgotten except by a few media sects who still love the ‘sprinting for a white line’ joke. Boonen became as famous for crashing his Lamborghini avoiding ‘cats’ or old ladies and dating 16 year olds then as for his riding, whilst Gilbert died his hair yellow and wore white suits occasionally. I know who I’d rather party with.

Don’t get me wrong though. Gilbert is a classy rider, a real star, a man who may end up winning 4 of the 5 monuments (Sorry Phil, can’t see Paris-Roubaix going your way) and equalling the record for the world championships, given he is an automatic favorite for basically every course thanks to his riding style. However, unless he wins all five or breaks that record, then it will be Boonen who goes down in the annals as the real legend of the noughties and twentytens for Belgium. He may not the the pure, aggressive, punchy racer Gilbert is, but his style, bobbing that head furiously as he pumps the pedals with his back arched furiously in the hair, his image, with the diamond encrusted helmets, Lambos, and reinforced flooring to hold up his DJ decks and quite simply his victories will, for the moment, be enough to elevate him above ‘PhilGil’.

But both men have high hopes on their shoulders for next year. Boonen must defend the double, Gilbert honour the rainbow jersey. Maybe a new ‘King of Belgium’ will emerge…

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