Can Gilbert Complete the Monument Sweep?
What it Takes and Who Else Has the Chops to Make Classics History
Phillipe Gilbert is on the edge of making Monumental history. If he wins in San Remo on March 27th, he’ll be only the 4th rider in history to win all 5 races – he’s already won Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and il Lombardia. But battling age, and a raft of younger challengers will make this the Spring of his life.
Gilbert has a fine palmarès
With the ‘real’ racing season getting underway this coming weekend with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne races and the first Monument of the season, Milano-Sanremo, just four weeks away, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on Philippe Gilbert’s potential to make cycling history by completing a Monument sweep (aka winning every ‘Monument’ race) and ask if there are any other active riders who could potentially make a run at this incredible feat.
In my opinion, due to the variety of terrain and race types, the Monument sweep is the most difficult feat in professional cycling. Only three riders in the history of the sport have ever completed it. Compare this to the vaunted grand tour double (winning two grand tours in a single year), which ten total riders have accomplished.
Gilbert with his Roubaix cobble
I’m not a big believer of Gilbert in his current form and I generally think he is over-the-hill but still talked about as the main contender in every race due to the media making the mistake of continuously gravitating towards known names, but the fact that he has put himself in position to complete this sweep with a single victory is stunning. Oddly, despite the barrage of media attention, I feel like the uniqueness of this feat and the rarified air this would put him in is somewhat undercovered.
Gilbert has been winning Classics for a while
For reference, the Monuments are five one-day races spread throughout the calendar:
Milan–San Remo – The first major Classic of the year, its Italian name is La Primavera (the spring), because it is held in late March. This race is particularly long (ca. 300 km (190 mi)) though mostly flat along the Ligurian coast, making it the “sprinter’s classic.” The easy-ish nature of the course makes it what many consider the easier race to ride but the most difficult to win.
Tour of Flanders – the Ronde van Vlaanderen in Flemish, the first of the Cobbled classics, is raced every first Sunday of April. It was first held in 1913, making it the youngest of the five Monuments. Notable for the narrow short hills (hellingen) in the Flemish Ardennes, usually steep and cobbled, the route forces the best riders to continually fight for space at the front for 6+ hours. The course changes slightly every year: since 2017 the race starts in Antwerp and since 2012 finishes in Oudenaarde.
Paris–Roubaix – the Queen of the Classics or l’Enfer du Nord (“The Hell of the North”) is raced traditionally one week after the Tour of Flanders and is the last of the cobbled races. It was first organized in 1896. Its decisive sites are the many long sections of pavé (roads of cobblestones) making it the difficult one-day cycling event to complete. While the race features cobblestones, it lacks any real hills, making it the rare race where extra muscle and weight can be an advantage. The race finishes on the iconic Roubaix Velodrome. At the end of the race, riders are usually covered in dirt and/or mud in what is considered one of the most brutal tests of mental and physical endurance in all of cycling.
Liège–Bastogne–Liège – La Doyenne, the oldest Classic, is the last of the Ardennes classics and usually the last of the spring races. It was first organized in 1892 as an amateur event; a professional edition followed in 1894. It is a long and arduous race notable for its many sharp hills in the Ardennes and uphill finish in the industrial suburbs of Liège, favoring climbers and grand tour specialists.
Giro di Lombardia – the Autumn Classic or the Race of the Falling Leaves, is held in October or late September. Initially organized as Milano–Milano in 1905, it was called the Giro di Lombardia (Tour of Lombardy) in 1907 and Il Lombardia in 2012. It is notable for its hilly and varied course around Lake Como. It is often won by climbers with a strong sprint finish.
Riders to Win All Five Monuments & Years in Which They Won:
Rik Van Looy: 1958-1965
Eddy Merckx: 1966-1976
Roger De Vlaeminck: 1970-1979.
Merckx and De Vlaeminck
Active Riders with Wins at More Than One Monument:
Philippe Gilbert (5) – 1xFlanders, 1xRoubaix, 1xLiege, 2xLombardia
Vincenzo Nibali (3) – 1xSanremo, 2xLombardia
Peter Sagan (2) – Flanders, Roubaix
John Degenkolb (2) – 1xSanremo, 1xRoubaix
Alexander Kristoff (2) – 1xSanremo, 1xFlanders
Dan Martin (2) – 1xLiege, 1xLombardia
Jakob Fuglsang (2) – 1xLiege, 1xLombarida.
Nibali with Sanremo and Lombardia to his name
Riders With a Single or No Wins Who Could Potentially Win All Five:
Wout van Aert (1) – Sanremo
Mathieu van der Poel (1) – Flanders
Julian Alaphilippe (1) – Sanremo
Marc Hirschi (0)
Tadej Pogacar (0).
Three for the future
Due to the sheer diversity of skills required to start, let alone win, the five races, we can quickly narrow down the list of riders who could potentially win all five.
Too “Light” to Win Cobbles Classics:
Nibali 143lbs (65kgs)
Martin 130lbs (59kgs)
Fuglsang 143 (65kgs).
Lombardia made for Dan Martin
With their light builds, Fuglsang, Nibali, and Martin should be considered favorites at the climb-heavy monuments of Lombardia and liege every time they start, and Nibali’s technical skill and racecraft have allowed him to win the “sprinter’s Classic,” Milano-Sanremo. But the cobbles and wind of Belgium mean winners of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are required to carry a little extra muscle to generate the necessary power to withstand the extreme power surges and survive the physical beating the cobblestone roads hand out (also, oddly enough, at Roubaix, extra height seems to help but I have no idea why).
Since 1960, the average height of the winner of Paris-Roubaix is 6-feet tall (1.82m) and the weight is 162 pounds (73.3kg), which is incredibly tall and heavy for a professional cyclist.
Martin, weighing in at 130 pounds (59kg), would have to become the lightest rider on record to win the race, and Fuglsang and Nibali, both at 143 pounds (65kg), would be the lightest since Bernard Hinault (136lbs/62kgs) won the race in 1981.
Hinault hated Roubaix, but still won it
However, if we pull back, this becomes less of a numbers-crunching exercise and more of a simple fact that the sport has changed significantly since the 1960s. Riders have specialized more and skills have bifurcated, with the winners of grand tours getting lighter and lighter while the winners of classics have gotten heavier (stronger) and heavier.
Martin has never started Flanders or Roubaix, so a win at this point in his career is completely out of the question. Nibali actually raced Flanders in 2018 and Fuglsang competed in 2016. Both performed well, with Nibali finishing 24th and Fuglsang 25th. However, there was a moment in the 2018 race when the eventual winner, Niki Terpstra, simply rode Nibali off his wheel on a false flat, showing that the vast majority of light GC riders lack the pure power needed to win these cobbled classics.
Fuglsang doesn’t mind a bit of rough road
One thing to note that while Nibali and Fuglsang both rode incredibly well over the Roubaix cobbles on Stage 5 of the 2014 Tour de France, a standalone one-day is a very different animal and it is difficult to imagine either rider ever taking the start-line at Roubaix, thus firmly ruling them out on ever winning the race.
Nibali can ride the cobbles
Too “Heavy” to Win Climbing Classics:
Degenkolb 172lbs (78kgs)
Kristoff 170lbs (77kgs)
In the same vein as above, both Degenkolb and Kristoff are far too heavier and lack the climbing talent necessary to compete at Liege or Lombardia. Technically, their sheer weight shouldn’t rule them out, since the heaviest rider to ever win the race, Francesco Moser (1975/1978) was 172lbs/78kgs. But, the second component, the ability to climb, rules them out. Both riders clearly agree since neither has started either race.
Kristoff can get over the Bergs
Another component working against bigger riders is the average weight of the winner has decreased significantly since Moser last won the race in 1978. This isn’t unique to Lombardia since the top non-cobbled riders have been getting significantly lighter in the last 10-15 years.
Hilly Classics too much for Degenkolb
On the Bubble:
Too late for Sagan?
Sagan: Listed at 172lbs/78kgs, Sagan is likely too heavy to truly compete at either Liege to Lombardia. While at times he has shown flashes of brilliance on the climbs, and at one point, I would have bet him Sagan winning multiple Ardennes classics. But after his physical meltdown when attempting to peak for Liege in 2019 it doesn’t seem like a Monument is still in the cards for the Slovakian.
The World champion needs to stay away from motorbikes
Alaphillipe: As I said recently in his rider preview, the Frenchman is an extremely versatile racer who can compete across an impressive array of courses. However, at 132lbs/60kgs, it is hard to imagine him contending at Roubaix since he is seven pounds lighter than the lightest winner since 1960, Bernard Hinault. While his Team Manager Patrick Lefevere initially thought he was too slight to compete at Flanders, he was in the perfect position to win the 2020 edition before running into a moto and crashing out. Overall, a few things are working against him: his slight build, possessing no career starts at Roubaix, and the fact that he only has a single Monument win on his Palmeres at the age of 28-years-old means his odds of a sweep are small, but not zero due to his extreme talent and racecraft.
Pogačar – A young star
Pogačar: The Slovenian sensation seemingly has the talent to accomplish and time (due to only being 22-years-old) anything he wishes, but while he is a little heavier at 145lbs/66kgs, he will run into the same headwinds at Roubaix as Alaphillipe. His talent means I wouldn’t be surprised if he won Flanders, Liege, Lombardia, and Sanremo throughout his career, but Roubaix will likely remain the elusive prize.
Hirschi – A winner of Monuments?
Hirschi: The young Swiss rider (22-years-old) is essentially a younger and more polished version (for both better and worse) of Alaphillipe. I believe he has the talent and rider profile to win Liege, Sanremo, Lombardia, and possibly even Flanders throughout his career, but like most of the riders above, Roubaix could prove to be too much for his slight frame (134lbs/61kgs).
Van der Poel can do anything
Van der Poel: On the surface, MvdP is simply too heavy to win Liege or Lombardia and should fall into the “Too Heavy” bucket. But as I pointed out in his rider preview, he finished top-10 at both in 2020 and is able to climb absurdly well for his size 165lbs/75kgs. Having a proven ability to race for the win at the Monuments which suit him least makes him a very strong candidate to complete the sweep. Oddly enough, the only race on which we have no data point is Paris-Roubaix, which in theory suits him the best due to his background dominating Cyclocross. The only thing working against him is his age. At 26-years-old, he has a limited number of seasons to expand on his single career Monument win and likely needs to add another one to his Palmeres this upcoming season. If he could win Sanremo next month, I’d start to seriously consider his chances of completing this sweep.
Van Aert has the class
Van Aert: MvdP’s Belgian counterpart strikes the same impressive when it comes to his size. You’d assume at 171lbs/78kgs, he’d be far too heavy to compete at Liege or Lombardia, but his stunning climbing performances at the 2020 Tour indicate he could get over the big climbs if needed. Unlike MvdP, he has started Roubaix at least once, and his 13th place in his debut showing indicates he could very well win it one day. But like MvdP, his relatively advanced age of 26 and single career Monument win work against him. On balance, I’d have to give the edge to Van Aert simply because he has already won Sanremo, the hardest monument to win (see: below) due to its fairly easy course and lottery-style finish.
Philippe Gilbert – Are his best years behind him?
Gilbert: Positioning himself as the most likely active rider to become the first rider to complete the Monument sweep since 1979 is a testament to both the Walloon’s skill and longevity. Gilbert has had multiple peaks and valleys in his impressive career and at 38-years-old he only needs a single win to accomplish what is likely the most difficult feat in professional cycling (obviously the triple grand tour win in a single season would be more impressive but I don’t consider it possible). Unfortunately, the win he needs, Milano-Sanremo, is what I consider the most difficult one to acquire. The easy-nature (in relative terms) of the course means it tends to end in a sprint lottery, and Gilbert no longer has the kick to compete in a major bunch finishes. He would have to win the race from a small group a la Van Aert in 2020 or Kwiatkowski in 2017, or simply cross the line solo after an attack on the Poggio the way Nibali did in 2018. It certainly isn’t impossible, but outside of a single top-five finish in a stage at Etoile de Bessèges, he has looked somewhat flat so far in 2021. With only four weeks between now and Sanremo, he has to find some quick form if he wants to make history. But having said all of that, it IS possible, which is a feat in itself. Gilbert is good enough, even at his advanced age, to pull off the upset and complete an epic sweep.
One of the best – Roger De Vlaeminck
Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns.