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Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
Belgian not scared of anybody at Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Philippe Gilbert has finished in the top ten of all the one-day Classics he has targeted in the last two years and could prove without doubt that he is the most complete Classics rider of his generation.
Gilbert was third in last year's Tour of Flanders, fourth at Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, second in the Belgian national championships, sixth at the World Championships and then ended the season with a run of victories at Paris-Tours and the Tour of Lombardy.
This year he was ninth at Milan-San Remo, third at Gent-Wevelgem, third at the Tour of Flanders, won the Amstel Gold Race and was sixth at Flèche Wallonne. According to Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure, even the great Eddy Merckx struggled to match that kind of consistency.
Gilbert insists he does so well because he simply loves racing. He is fortunate to have the power and bike skills to handle the cobbled races in Flanders, the climbing ability for the Ardennes and a fast sprint to win on both terrains. He revealed he is still trying to work out which Classics suit him.
"I don't know myself which Classics suit me the best," he told Derniere Heure. "At the start I thought I was a Ardennes Classics rider because I was born in Remouchamps. If winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège was just about being born at the foot of the La Redoute, it'd be easy for me…"
"I think my ability allows me to be up there on every terrain. Now I'm even starting to get used to adapting mentally for different races. Apart from the high mountains, where I'm not very good, I think I can handle everything else. I've got the potential to win both the Flemish and the Ardennes Classics."
With Belgium becoming more and more divided because of the difference between the Flemish and Francophone cultures, Gilbert's versatility is a sign, at least, of cycling unification.
Gilbert is perhaps the most complete Classics rider since Italy's Paolo Bettini. He likes the comparison.
"I liked the way he raced so aggressively. I take the comparison as a compliment. Though I've still a long way to go before I equal his palmares."
A victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège would go a long way towards that and continue his run of major results. Gilbert knows he is the big favourite but insisted he can afford to ride defensively, calling the bluff of his rivals by saying he will let his rivals exhaust one another before the sprint finish in Ans.
"I know it won't be easy because everybody will be watching me but my success at the Amstel Gold Race has taken the pressure off me and allows me to race defensively," he said.
"This year, instead of anticipating an attacker, like last year on the Sprimont. I can follow the moves and take advantage of my sprint. The Cote d'Ans is ideal for me, I can use my power to climb it and then I can play my card in the sprint. I'm not scared of anybody after 260 kilometres."