Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) has reached the Milan-San Remo podium twice and animated the closing kilometres multiple other times, but the 35-year-old Belgian Classics specialist has never won the Italian Monument that rolls out Saturday for 294km of racing. He'd like to change that this year.
Gilbert will line up with a strong seven-rider Quick-Step team that has multiple ways of winning, including with sprinter Elia Viviani if the bunch comes onto the Via Roma in downtown San Remo together. If history is a guide, however, Gilbert will try to make something happen before the sprinters get a chance to have their day.
"It's always hard to know and to understand this race," Gilbert said when asked last week at Tirreno-Adriatico what was the secret to winning Milan-San Remo.
"Of course I was close a few times, but it never happened to win. I was twice on the podium, but it remains as a dream to make it happen. I don't know if it'll be this year or maybe also never. Of course, every time I'll be at the start I'll try to give it my best. And I'm also in a very strong team, we have a chance with a few riders. Maybe we are only seven on the start, but we are really strong. Of course, we will go with Quick-Step team for the win."
Aside from Viviani, Quick-Step will field Julian Alaphilippe, third last year after making the late move on the Poggio with winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) and runner-up Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). They'll be joined on the start line in Milan Saturday morning by Tim Declercq, Iljo Keisse, Maximiliano Ariel Richeze and Fabio Sabatini.
The Poggio is the most likely place for a rider with Gilbert's skillset to attack, but he wasn't giving anything away when it came to his plans for the race.
"Yeah, we'll try. We'll see," he said when asked about attacking on the final climb leading into San Remo. "Like I say, I don't have a crystal ball and I can't say in advance what will happen.
"I think in 2011 I was close to win," he said. "I had the legs to win but it didn't happen, and I was third. Then in 2007, I was also really good and they came back with 1km to go, but that's how it is, you have to accept it and keep trying."
Quick-Step suffered a blow when Fernando Gaviria, fifth last year, crashed at Tirreno-Adriatico and broke his hand, knocking him from the team's San Remo roster.
"That's really bad news, not just for San Remo, but the other classics," Gilbert said. "I think he was in good shape and able to win some of the upcoming races. But honestly, we also have Viviani, who for the moment is the best sprinter of the season. When you see his statistics in the sprint, it's very impressive. Of course, he will have our confidence and support also."
Asked about his dream scenario for winning the first Monument of the season to go along with his wins at Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Gilbert wasn't picky.
"Honestly, if I can win, I don't care the way. The most important would be to win," he said. "Of course, it's more exciting if you win in the sprint because you only see it happen in the last moment and the expectation is higher."
How many more chances Gilbert will have to add San Remo to his palmares is unclear, but Gilbert figures he'll have at least one more chance if he can't do it this year.
"I don't know," he said. "I still have a one-year contract after this one, so at least I have two times that I can race, and then we'll see."
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