Pressed by reporters to sum up his feelings on sharing leadership of the Belgian World championships team with Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert insisted that it was a “win-win situation.”
A few metres away, buried within another scrum of microphones and notepads at the Belgian team press event, Boonen was dutifully telling the Flemish media the same thing. But while Belgium’s two front men were singing from the same hymn sheet at the squad’s pre-race press conference in Vilt, they inadvertently revealed the potential for creative differences in their interpretations of the Valkenburg course.
The final attacks of the race are expected on the Cauberg -a sharp climb ideally suited to an explosive puncheur such as Gilbert, and the Walloon has twice triumphed atop the climb at the end of the Amstel Gold Race. Yet the finish line is 1.5km after the summit of the climb and Boonen believes that attacks on the Cauberg are doomed to be swept up before the line.
“If the finish was on top of the Cauberg it would be difficult for me but there’s still a kilometre and a half to go after the summit, and I think that’s plenty of time to recover well and concentrate on the sprint that follows,” Boonen said. “It’s a classic course, a hard course, but I’m not afraid of it.”
Across the room, Philippe Gilbert was envisaging an altogether different final 1500 metres. “I don’t think that you can make up the ground in a kilometre and a half,” he said. “Personally, I think that the gaps at the top of the Cauberg will stay more or less the same until the line.”
After a listless opening half to the season that saw Gilbert ride in pale imitation of his dominant 2011 self, the BMC rider has gradually found some form in the weeks leading up to the Worlds. Two fine stage wins at the Vuelta a España put a rosier hue on his season and prompted Belgian teammate Bjorn Leukemans to tell the local press that nobody would be able to live with Gilbert on the final reckoning up the Cauberg on Sunday.
“I saw the headline but I don’t know if that’s realistic,” Gilbert said warily. “If I’m the big favourite, it’s maybe because I’ve won Amstel a couple of times and I come from nearby, but there are a lot of other riders to watch here too.”
Regardless of what Gilbert, Joaquim Rodriguez et al can conjure up on the Cauberg, Boonen believes that the Ardennes classics specialists will encounter an unwanted surprise when they crest the summit: a stiff headwind that might just as well have been imported from west Flanders for the occasion.
“We rode the course yesterday and I think the wind will be the same on Sunday, which means that it would be a headwind after the Cauberg,” Boonen warned. “That will make it hard to stay out in front.”
Boonen is convinced that after 267km of racing, he will have enough in the tank to stay within striking distance over the top of the Cauberg and then be able to fight for the rainbow jersey in a sprint.
“I hope I’m still there with three or four teammates,” Boonen said. “Going up the Cauberg normally isn’t a big problem and after the top, you can organise yourself well for a sprint.”
Gilbert and Boonen’s differing predictions for the race are a firm indication of the intriguing balance of the Valkenburg circuit. Their respective characteristics means the Belgians hold two very different cards ahead of the finale, while the strongly-fancied Spanish team could risk playing the same hand three times on the Cauberg.
“I think that it will be hard for the Spanish to work out a good tactic. If it was up to me, I’d ride for Oscar Freire, because it’s hard to attack with four or five riders on the Cauberg,” Boonen said.
On a course that has stoked the enthusiasm of Ardennes specialists and cobbled classics riders alike, Gilbert and Boonen are – in theory – an ideal combination to deal with all eventualities. The Walloon and the Flandrian both easily swapped between Dutch and French throughout the press conference, and coach Carlo Bomans must hope they show similarly fluid understanding on Sunday.
“It’s a real advantage for us to have two real leaders,” Gilbert said. “If we get to the finish with both Boonen and me up there, I think that we could be a smokescreen for one another. I can lean on him and he can lean on me. It’s a win-win situation, and I think that’s interesting for the two of us and for the team.”