After dominating one-day racing in 2011 and making a highly-publicised switch to BMC, there is a palpable air of anticipation about what Philippe Gilbert might achieve in the new campaign, but the man himself was an oasis of calm at his team’s recent training camp in Denia, Spain.
Now backed by a powerful arsenal of support at BMC, the explosive Gilbert will be widely expected to replicate his exploits of last year, but the Belgian champion insisted that he felt no pressure from his new team ahead of the coming season.
“BMC invest a lot in cycling, but they don’t push for results,” Gilbert told reporters. “We’re all motivated, we don’t need pressure from the management and they don’t put us under any pressure.”
With the Olympic Games and a world championships course seemingly bespoke fitted to Gilbert’s qualities as a puncheur on the horizon in 2012, the Belgian has objectives littered throughout the calendar.
“This year is a big season,” Gilbert admitted. “I have the classics, the Tour, the Olympics, the Vuelta and the Worlds, so it will be a long season. Hopefully I’ll be up to the level for those challenges.”
In spite of his reverence for the rainbow jersey, Gilbert is aware that opportunities to take an Olympic medal are even more fleeting and he acknowledged that success in London would carry connotations beyond cycling. “It’s different,” he said. “You don’t have the jersey but after your career, you can say ‘I was an Olympic medallist,’ which is something very important.”
Gilbert will spend the build-up to the Olympics riding in the service of Cadel Evans at the Tour de France, although it would a surprise if the he is not granted a certain degree of leeway during the race’s opening exchanges in Belgium. However, Gilbert ruled out the possibility of chasing the green jersey, rueing the impact it had on the second half of his 2011 Tour.
“No, no, no, it was a bad experience last year,” Gilbert protested when asked if he would mount another bid for the jersey. “In the last week I lost all my chances because of that jersey, so in the end it was maybe a bad idea to do that.”
Among the pretenders to Gilbert’s Ardennes crown in 2012 is the controversial Alejandro Valverde, who returns to the peloton after finally serving a suspension for his links to Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, the doctor at the centre of the Operacion Puerto blood doping investigation.
The Spaniard gave notice of his intentions with a stage victory during his comeback at the Tour Down Under in January, but Gilbert pointed out that the classics in April would present a different challenge.
“I was surprised he won so early. I know that Simon Gerrans has a high level already now so to beat him you need a very good level,” Gilbert mused. “Valverde is maybe not at the top of his condition but really good. It’s difficult to say something, they were short stages of 150km, but the classics are 250-260km, so it’s completely different. But I’m sure that Valverde will be there.”
If the local media are to be believed, Gilbert also has a rival within his own team, in the shape of Greg Van Avermaet. The pair appeared to be uneasy stable-mates at Omega Pharma-Lotto, but after a season apart, they once again find themselves as allies of circumstance at BMC. Both men presented a united front in Denia, even if Gilbert appeared to subtly outline his take on their places in the team’s classics hierarchy.
“I saw he signed for two more years, it’s nice,” Gilbert said. “I’m sure we will have a good team with him in the classics, and I think everybody also knows his job in the team.”
Coping with expectation
Given his startling string of wins in 2011, the clamour surrounding Gilbert reached fever pitch in Belgium during the winter, and it was with a certain degree of weariness that he dowsed the prospect that he might one day attempt to broaden his repertoire still further and attempt to win a grand tour.
“This thing started when Eddy Merckx said I could win the Tour,” he said, shaking his head. “It was bad because I had a lot pressure about this and a lot of questions. For me, I’m focused on the one-day races and I’m a great fan of those races.”
Nonetheless, in spite of all of the adulation, speculation and expectation, Gilbert was quick to point out that his success is something he enjoys rather than endures, and that he is unfettered by pressure.
“I’m relaxed, I like my job. Really, it’s more of a passion than a job,” he shrugged. “I always dreamt of being a professional, and riding those races, and winning those races, and now I’m doing it so why should I have pressure or stress? For me it’s just a dream and I like it.”