Belgian also claimed first season win of 2012 in Vuelta
Recent history repeated itself in the Vuelta a España on Thursday: Just as in 2012, Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team) claimed his first season win with a stage victory in the Spanish Grand Tour, confirming, too, that he is on track for a crack at the World Championships for a second straight year.
Just like in 2012, Gilbert's maiden season victory came in Catalonia, albeit in a slightly different course. In 2012 the Belgian had won in Barcelona after attacking on the twisting rollercoaster finish at Montjuic park alongside then race leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). And in 2013 in nearby Tarragona, he raised his arms skywards again - although this time, rather than a longer breakaway, there was a 'ramp' of some 150 metres in the final kilometer and Gilbert's move came with a perfectly calculated late charge past Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) as the pack snapped at their heels.
"It's very special because this is my first victory, and my thanks to the team, my friends and family for trusting in me through this time," Gilbert said after repeatedly making ‘thumbs-up' signs at the television cameras.
Asked how he felt about winning after a wait of nearly twelve months for a second year running, Gilbert said, "Just one word comes into my mind: finally. I've come really close [to winning] a few times, but it's been very hard. However, I've never lost my motivation."
"At this point in the season, there was also a lot of pressure with the [upcoming] World's, so the situation has been pretty intense."
As for why Gilbert has taken such a long time to win both in 2012 and 2013, he met the question head-on, saying "everybody's career has a high point and mine was in 2011." That year he won 18 races, including all three Ardennes Classics.
"I'm racing on a high level. I've always been close to the win. The only difference is whether you win or don't. It's all about a few percentage of power [output], and it's not easy to stay on the highest level for years."
He also explained that unlike at Lotto, his previous team up until the end of 2011, at BMC the race strategies were sometimes different and the team would occasionally be focussed purely on winning overall, rather than going for stage wins, too, "so this is already a lot of stages gone."
Either way, taking a Grand Tour stage win in the Vuelta a España was hugely important, he recognised, "because everybody expected me to win, to see that first time. You can say it's a very great moment to win with the World Champion's jersey."
After his ultra-near miss when Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) just fended him off at the end of the Vuelta's stage seven, Gilbert was determined not to let his duel with Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) end in another near-defeat.
"Victory wasn't at all certain, I had to work very hard to be sure of winning. I had to give it everything but it worked out perfectly. I kept on thinking in the last kilometres about Stybar and thinking how much I didn't want that to occur again. It's very hard to lose a stage by one or two centimetres."
As for the World Championships, Gilbert admitted that "a lot of pressure will come and I know that with a course like the one in Florence, a lot of people will say I can win again."
"But I can handle this, I can race with pressure, although I'm not the only favourite. [Fabian] Cancellara, [Peter] Sagan, Spanish guys like [Alejandro] Valverde, I could quickly come up with ten guys on a list." However, after Gilbert's victory in Tarragona - and bearing in mind what happened after he won at the Vuelta last year - the 31-year-old Belgian is surely on that list of potential winners, too.
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