Belgian rider is the favorite after recent string of successes
After racking up three wins in a row in the last two weeks, Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) is the top favourite for the win in cycling's fourth Monument of the season, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
On Friday afternoon, a relaxed Gilbert talked with the international press in the team's hotel in Maastricht, The Netherlands. Gilbert said he wouldn't mind trading all of his earlier wins for a first win in Liège.
"It's the most important race of the season and of my career. If I don't win, I will not be happy. It's the highest achievable goal for me. It was the race I dreamed of ever since I was a junior. It's a big thing to be the favourite at the start. If I can win, it will be amazing. I'll exchange it for all my other victories. I really want to win Liège," Gilbert said.
Twelve years ago, the late Frank Vandenbroucke was the last Belgian to battle for the win in Liège. Vandenbroucke had then claimed he would win Liège-Bastogne-Liège and specified that it would happen with an attack on the Côte de Saint-Nicolas.
"I will not say that I will win like VDB," said Gilbert. "I will not talk like that because I'm not sure to win. I will never say that I'll win on Sunday."
During his previous attempts for glory on home soil, Gilbert fell short on the demanding course. On Friday, he expressed his hope that this year would be different.
A key point in the race is the climb of the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons. "I lost the race two times there, so I hope to have a different race this year. Now I have a strong team. I can let the team work and ride more on reserves than last year," Gilbert said.
Due to his win in the Amstel Gold Race and his somewhat unexpected victory in the Flèche Wallonne, the talkative Belgian has manoeuvred himself into a Cancellara-like role. But according to Gilbert, it is unlikely he will get in the same trouble as the strong Swiss rider at the pavé Classics.
"Cancellara did not have a team like I have. He was alone in the last 40km. I'm alone in the last 300m. It's a big difference," Gilbert said.
During Flèche Wallonne, Gilbert's team wasn't spotted near the front until deep into the finale. The teams which did the work for much of the race lost out in the end, but Gilbert responded by saying that the race hadn't been a goal of his.
Gilbert knows his team will have a lot of responsibility on Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but he is hoping it will get a hand from a few other teams. In an effort to recruit some others, he claimed that he is not as unbeatable as he seems.
"I will ask some help from other favourites. I'm not the only one with ambition on Sunday. If the Schlecks and Rodríguez want to win they have to work, too. I won the last three races, but it's not impossible to win against me. I was very good three times, but Sunday it's a different race. It's very hard and it's longer than on Wednesday. Everybody has a chance so I hope we can work together," Gilbert said.
The scenario which Gilbert is hoping to avoid is one in which there is an early selection. "Every race we fight almost two hours before the breakaway goes. If the peloton is still together at the Côte de Saint Roch, then I have to ride in the first 10 with the whole team, and maybe we will go with 30 riders; it's something that can happen with the new start.
"I hope the breakaway goes very fast with some riders who're not so strong. That's the best scenario. I will be there with the best, but if we go from there, that's a problem, for everybody.
"The trilogy [Côte de Wanne, Stockeu and Haute-Levée] is always important because it's very narrow and technical. The race starts there. Afterwards, towards the Rosier, everybody can come back because there's space. I don't think it's possible to go like Vino did with [Jens] Voigt [on the Côte de Vecquee in 2005]. I think it's going to be more compact," Gilbert said.
"We'll try and stay together until the finale. If they go earlier than in the past, I have to go, but I have no fear. I'm fast in the sprint, and I don't think I can get dropped on the climbs, so I don't think I have to be stressed," Gilbert said.
When asked which riders concern him the most, he named Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Alexandr Kolobnev and Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha), Fränk and Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek), Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale).
Gilbert's recent string of impressive wins may seem too good to be true for some. During the press conference, Gilbert was asked what he thought about a quote from his boss, Omega Pharma CEO Marc Coucke. Back in 2009, the latter was quoted in an interview with P-Magazine, "If I see a rider delivering superhuman efforts then I'm not thinking: 'waw, a new Merckx' but - just like everybody I think - 'waw, a new pill'."
A surprised Gilbert didn't take the statement too seriously. "Marc Coucke? That's nice," Gilbert said, laughing. "It's also his job. I'm surprised to hear this stupid thing."
In the current cycling climate, Gilbert will likely have to answer more of these kinds of questions, especially if he wins on Sunday and completes a unique quadruple: winning Flèche Brabançonne, Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Happily for Gilbert, he can point to his roots - early years under the guidance of outspoken French anti-doping team manager Marc Madiot while on the Française des Jeux team. The Belgian has gradually take the steps toward becoming the top quality rider he is today.
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