Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) has said that he and the other Tour of Flanders contenders cannot afford to wait until the closing stages of the race if they wish to deny Fabian Cancellara victory on Sunday. While the Belgian acknowledged that Cancellara is the favourite, he believes that anything is possible in De Ronde.
“Cancellara is a very clever rider,” Gilbert told L’Équipe. “He’s capable of letting a little group go as though it were nothing and then letting his rivals tire themselves out before catching us out when he feels that we’re all dead.
“It’s a real game of poker with him. You have to play with your cards to close to your chest and try to be more intelligent than him. We know that if we wait for the finale, we’re beaten. He would only be too happy to put two minutes into is.”
Cancellara’s status as favourite means that Gilbert does not expect to be as tightly marked in Flanders as he was at Milan-San Remo a fortnight ago. He also believes that the prospect of beating the highly-fancied Cancellara is an additional motivation for a number of riders in the race.
“In one sense, I will have more freedom because he can’t watch everybody,” Gilbert said. “It’s up to him to assume his responsibilities and he’ll have to earn this Tour of Flanders.
“We know that we have a big challenge, which is not only to win the Tour of Flanders, but also to beat Cancellara. The winner on Sunday will be spoken of more than would normally be the case if he beats a rider like him. I imagine that I won’t be the only one drawing motivation from that challenge.
"I believe that everything is possible in spite of what people might think."
As a French-speaking Walloon, Gilbert grew up dreaming of victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and while La Doyenne remains the centrepiece of his spring campaign, his appreciation for the Tour of Flanders has grown gradually since his transfer to Omega Pharma-Lotto at the start of 2009.
“It’s true that it wasn’t the race of my dreams, unlike Liège,” Gilbert said of the Flemish race. “In fact, this is the first year that I’ve realised that it’s such a big spectacle. I’ve stayed in Deinze for the past two weeks, where the climbs are, and I’ve seen this incredible excitement grow.
“In arriving at Lotto after Française des Jeux, I had already discovered this passion, which was a little strange to me. In a French team, we didn’t talk about it as much in February.”
The last Walloon to win in Flanders was Claudy Criquielion in 1987 but Gilbert was keen to point out that he views himself as a Belgian rider rather than a representative of one of its regions. The country has been without a government since June last year, as tensions between parties from the Flemish and Walloon regions has gridlocked the Belgian political system.
“I know the roll of honour (of the Tour of Flanders), but I’m removed from the divisions that are marking Belgium,” Gilbert said. “I’m not a man who has ever manifested his belonging to Wallonia. Above all, I’m a Belgian rider.”