In the early months of 2013, Tom Boonen’s injured elbow became such a point of discussion in Flanders that it even spawned its own Twitter account. Passions among the cycling faithful in Wallonia are a little more understated, perhaps, but the state of Philippe Gilbert’s fractured finger has generated its share of column inches in the build-up to the region’s marquee races, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Gilbert was injured following an altercation with a motorist during a training ride a little under two weeks ago, and he duly struggled at Amstel Gold Race on Sunday, in what was his first competitive outing since the incident. Dropped long before the race’s denouement, Gilbert came home in 81st place and after the race, his BMC directeur sportif Valerio Piva warned reporters not to expect miracles. Two days on, the prognosis is scarcely better.
“He’s getting better every day but I don’t think an awful lot can change in four or five days,” Piva told Cyclingnews in Marche-en-Famenne on Tuesday. “The problem isn’t so much his condition as the effects of the injury, and I don’t think that’s been helped by the cold either.
“But he’ll be at the start and these races aren’t the end of the line either, so we also have to look on the positive side of this situation and remember that these races are also important as preparation for the Giro d’Italia. Philippe’s certainly not here as one of the favourites like in other years, but he still has good motivation.”
Gilbert’s travails at Amstel Gold Race were compounded by the fact that his finger injury required an alteration to his position that had a knock-on effect on his back and his pedal stroke. Despite that issue, Piva said that Gilbert simply couldn’t afford to skip La Flèche Wallonne in the faint hope that his injury would be less of a factor by the time Liège-Bastogne-Liège comes around on Sunday.
“We’d already discussed that plan with him. If his condition was the way it should have been, there was a possibility of skipping Flèche in order to prepare for Liège, because in recent years, Philippe has realised that he hasn’t had the freshness you need at Flèche after racing Amstel. But at this point, he needs kilometres to get his condition up, so it made no sense to skip Flèche only to turn up at Liège at less than 100 per cent anyway.”
Gilbert will set out from Marche-en-Famenne on Wednesday with the aim of being at the front of the race deeper into the finale than at Amstel Gold Race, but Piva acknowledged that a repeat of his 2011 victory was unlikely.
“He’ll do the race and see. If he’s up there in the finale, we’ll see, but against Valverde, Rodriguez, Dan Martin and those riders – guys who have prepared this race as Philippe would normally have done – it’s not going to be easy,” Piva said.
A tactical re-think for BMC
Gilbert’s injury means that BMC will approach the Ardennes Classics with a different mind-set to normal. Where in years past, the men in red and black have looked to control the peloton on Gilbert’s behalf, this time around they will look to infiltrate attacks and break the race open.
“You saw already at Amstel, we didn’t help to control the race and we certainly won’t be looking to do any differently at the races coming up,” Piva said. “Rather than controlling the race we’ll look to get riders into moves as they happen. We still have Samuel Sanchez, who’s had some good placings on the Mur de Huy. We’ve got Loïc Vliegen, who was 10th at Amstel. We’ve got Dylan Teuns, who was in the top 15 last year.”
With Gilbert’s capacities diminished, Walloon eyes have begun to turn towards his young teammate Vliegen, who, incidentally, was training with Gilbert when he sustained his injury. Still only 22 and in his first year as a professional, Vliegen’s displays at Le Samyn (4th), Brabantse Pijl (9th) and Amstel God Race (10th) earned him the seemingly obligatory “new Gilbert” headlines, but he lines up this week without any particular burden of expectation from his team.
“Loïc certainly doesn’t have any pressure on his shoulders. Obviously, it’s nice to see him already putting in a performance like that at this level, but he’s not a leader for us at this point in time,” Piva said. “He has a role like the other young riders, which is a bit freer than normal this week because Philippe won’t have the same level of support as in other years. It’s easier for them to get a result at the moment. This is a chance for them to show their worth.”
“Loïc’s is a very good rider, but it’s a big step to go from there to talking about a new Gilbert. He needs to win races first, because Gilbert has won a lot of them.”