The state of Philippe Gilbert’s form was something of an enigma in the build-up to Milan-San Remo, and La Classicissima offered offered no definitive verdict as a crash ended the Belgian champion’s challenge over the top of the Cipressa.
Without a victory since his high-profile switch to BMC in the off-season and forced out of Tirreno-Adriatico through illness earlier in the week, many were looking to the finale of Milan-San Remo for signs of a Gilbert recovery, but the Belgian was felled by a crash near the summit of the race’s penultimate climb.
“It was Dominique Rollin from FDJ who was maybe on the limit and taking a lot of risks,” Gilbert told reporters outside the BMC team bus after the finish. “He made a lot of riders fall around me. I was afraid because there were cars passing on my right. I slid on my back and then other riders crashed into me from behind.”
Although Gilbert was able to remount and continue, he rolled in to San Remo almost eight minutes down on winner Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge). In spite of his ill fortune, Gilbert was confident that he had not sustained any lasting injuries in the crash.
“I just have some burns, so we’ll see tomorrow,” he said, casually lifting his leg to show a series of scrapes across his calf, and then laughing joylessly. “Rollin is my bête noire for crashes…”
The BMC squad had put four riders working on the front on the approach to the Cipressa, but Gilbert himself came to the front and appeared to tell his teammates to relent their efforts.
“John [Lelangue] was saying on the radio that we should stop riding on the front, and just keep a rider or two up there. I wasn’t sure if the radio wasn’t working that well so I went up to tell them,” he explained.
“Yeah, we were on the front pulling with four riders and then we decided to cut it back to two so that some of the other teams would come and help us,” said his teammate Alessandro Ballan.
Ballan went on to be BMC’s best finisher, as he came home in eighth place and the stakes will grow ever higher for the expensively-assembled outfit as the spring progresses. Remarkably, the team has yet to win its first race of the new campaign but manager John Lelangue tried to accentuate the positives after Milan-San Remo, mindful that sprinter Thor Hushovd was a significant absentee due to illness.
“I have no regrets strategically,” Lelangue said. “I just regret that we had three crashes, particularly the crashes of our leaders. But given the circumstances and the difficult week we had, it wasn’t too bad.”
With the Tour of Flanders just two weeks away, and with the Ardennes classics on the horizon, it is Gilbert who will bear the brunt of the media spotlight, and he spoke afterwards as though mindful of the scrutiny his every pedal stroke will face from an expectant Belgian press over the coming month.
“I felt very well today, my condition was good,” he smiled, keen to placate their fears as he beat a gradual retreat to the sanctuary of the team bus. “The team worked very well. I was good, I was confident too. We went up the Cipressa very slowly but I was confident for the Poggio.”