Belgium's Philippe Gilbert is happy he was able to close his 2009 season with a victory, and moreover a prestigious one. The win in Paris-Tours confirmed the 26 year-old as a top Classics contender, and Gilbert is eager to prove more of his worth next year in the ranks of his new team Silence-Lotto.
But first, he has to say his goodbyes to his French team Française des Jeux that developed his talent these past six years. "It's a page that turns, but as I mean to race until I'm 35, we might see each other again," Gilbert told La Dernière Heure. "I have plenty of good memories, and I was able to learn a lot of things. Helping Brad McGee defend his pink jersey in the Giro, assist Baden Cooke in the Classics, ride alongside Fred Guesdon..."
Gilbert made an important point about the freedom he was given at the team, and how it ultimately made him achieve his success. "At 20 years of age, thanks to Marc [Madiot, FdJ team manager - ed.], I was already competing in the great races," he continued. "This would not have been possible in a Belgian team where there is more rivalry - especially for the Classics - and where it is more difficult for a young rider to find his spot. These last six years, I started in all the Classics that I wanted and I gained a lot of experience."
Managing his efforts, and attacking at the right time were the keys to his previous successes and also his victory in Paris-Tours last week-end. "I'm able to race without spending too much energy," he continued. "Then, I take advantage of that in the finale. I position myself well and spare a lot of energy. Afterwards, in those kind of races, you don't have the right to make any mistakes. You have to dig in at the right moment and make the others suffer. I'm an explosive kind of rider - on these kind of climbs, only Valverde is possibly stronger than me. [Last] Sunday, I did not fear anyone."
With the victory in France, the two-times winner of Het Volk emerged from being a 'dark horse' to a top Classics favourite. "Paris-Tours and Milano-Sanremo suit me and I finished first and third in them this season," Gilbert added. "That proves that I have made progress, that I start to reveal myself. First, i finished in the top 15, then top 10 and so on..."
Now, Gilbert has to stand up to his hard-earned position within a Belgian team, Silence-Lotto, which will expose him to more pressure. But the 26 year-old is not afraid of the challenge. "I've always had pressure," he said. "But I take it as positive pressure. Stress doesn't block me - to the contrary, it motivates me."