Gilbert: Even if it's a crazy dream, it's possible

Belgian takes aim at Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix to complete Monument set

In this day and age few things go by without a hashtag, and so it is for racing objectives in professional cycling.

#StriveForFive is the message Philippe Gilbert has begun sending out on his social media accounts, and he was the centre of attention at Quick-Step Floors team presentation in Calpe as he set out his 2018 plans and his desire to complete the set of cycling's five Monuments.

"It's a big motivation for me. Even if it's a crazy dream, it's possible," the 35-year-old Belgian said on Tuesday in one of many rounds of interviews on the Spanish coastal resort.

The ambition had lain dormant for some time but it was reawakened last year with a remarkable return to form in the northern, cobbled Classics, culminating in his extraordinary victory at the Tour of Flanders. With Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia already on his palmares, Gilbert now has just two boxes left to tick: Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix. Both are written in bold on his 2018 calendar.

While Gilbert has twice finished on the podium at Milan-San Remo, he is almost a complete newcomer to Paris-Roubaix; out of 47 Monument rides in his 16-year career, he has hit the cobblestones of northern France just once, all the way back in 2007. But it's not that he's cowed by the race that's known as 'The Hell of the North'.

"We make a lot of things about it, but it's not that bad. It's like every Classic, you finish empty, but I think it's sometimes exaggerated," Gilbert said of the cobbles and distance, with the nonchalance that can only come from winning Flanders through a 55km solo raid.

That said, he played down the prospect of going straight back in and winning it.

"Now it's really hard to say that I'm going to go there and race for the win, but of course I want to get a lot of experience there and get stronger at it," he said.

"It would be easier to say what I think about it after the race because now without experience it's hard to say anything, but it's still a special race."

Milan-San Remo is the more familiar to Gilbert but he feels it's much more of a lottery. He finished third in 2008 and 2011, both times after the race fragmented on the late climb of the Poggio. He knows the race is just as likely to come down to a bunch sprint on the Via Roma.

"In San Remo it's not easy to make something happen. You see sometimes a rider like [Peter] Sagan is strongest there but still loses it," said the Belgian. "When you start Flanders in the same condition, I don't think you can lose it because in the end the best wins. It's the same in Liege or Roubaix also, so if you're the strongest at the start you have a big chance to win, but in San Remo that's not the case."

What about the Ardennes Classics?

From now on, Gilbert is squarely focused on what he hasn't yet achieved, and that means, while he'll race San Remo and a full cobbled programme this year, there's little thought given to the subsequent Ardennes Classics.

He won all three – Amstel Gold Race, Fleche-Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege – in 2011, and raised eyebrows when, in the form of his life post-Flanders, he skipped Paris-Roubaix last year to try it again. He won the Amstel Gold Race but was forced to miss the Ardennes Classics after tearing a kidney in a crash.

"It was my choice. I knew I was able to win Amstel and maybe Fleche and Liege, like in 2011, because I had the legs. I was convinced I could win the three races again. That's why I said 'okay now I stop after Flanders and rest and train specifically on the climbing. That's what I did and I came ready in Amstel and unfortunately I had to stop, but I think without the crash I would have been close in the two second ones also," he argued.

"For 2018 it's hard to say. The good thing is we don't need me (for the Ardennes), in this team, because we have many other guys, so that's something important. Everyone has less pressure because we have a really wide leadership. I know if Julian [Alaphilippe] has no bad luck like last year, he will be there, Bob [Jungels] will be there, so actually they don't need me, and so if I'm there it's a bonus."

Winning all five Monuments might seem like an audacious task – a "crazy dream", as he himself put it – but Gilbert said that's exactly why he phoned Quick-Step Floors boss Patrick Lefevere one-and-a-half years ago to propose his services directly.

"This team is really the best team to be if you have an ambition in the Classics, this is why I'm here, why I sign again a new contract," said Gilbert.

"I fitted directly into this team because they race really aggressive, and this is my way of racing – it's always been my way of racing. When you recognise yourself in the team then you really feel happy and on the same page. It works straight away. I think I made the right decision – even now for the future I think it's a really good choice."

Gilbert signed a new two-year deal that will keep him at the team until the end of the 2019 season, by which point he'll be 37.

"I just race and train and be serious and that's it," he said when asked if he still felt young.

"I have a two-year contract so you'll see me here next year, then I don't know. I'm relaxed; I take it as it comes. For sure the decision will come from me. One day I'll have to decide to stop but this day's not coming yet."

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