As befits a rider who has won the event three times and claimed a world title on the same finale to boot, Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) usually sets out as the default favourite for Amstel Gold Race, but he is unsure of his prospects this time out as he races for the first time since fracturing his finger following an altercation with a motorist during a training ride last week.
“You need to be realistic. I’m not the favourite for the race on Sunday,” Gilbert said at his pre-race press conference. “I’ll set out with the status of team leader but we’ll take stock during the race depending on the circumstances. I don’t have the usual point of reference for my form from Brabantse Pijl [on Wednesday, which Gilbert missed – ed.], and that’s always an interesting test.
“The first objective is to be there in the finale. Whether I can win, we’ll see how I am after the last ascent of the Gulpenberg.”
Gilbert wore a bandage on his left hand during his press conference on Friday, and while the swelling has reduced over the course of the past week, he explained that he has had to make some alterations to how he brakes and changes gear.
“I’ve adapted my position on the bike a little bit to be more comfortable and I’ve had to change how I handle my bike in the last few days. I’m braking with three fingers now, but I have no choice,” Gilbert said. “I’m lucky that the state of the roads in Limburg is perfect, the tarmac is very smooth there. Though unfortunately, it won’t be the same at Flèche Wallonne or Liège-Bastogne-Liège…”
Gilbert has forged his three Amstel Gold Race wins – and his 2012 Worlds triumph – by powering clear on the final haul up the Cauberg. At both the 2012 Worlds and the 2014 edition of Amstel, Gilbert was glad of a tailwind to puff him along the 1.8-kilometre plateau between the summit and the finish line, but he admitted that he is hoping for different conditions this time around.
“It could be an advantage for me if there’s a headwind on the Cauberg. It’s curious to say that when I’ve won twice with a tailwind,” said Gilbert, who reconnoitred the parcours on Friday morning. “[The headwind] was violent on the Cauberg on Friday. In those conditions, it’s impossible to attack because you risk losing any chance two kilometres later.
“If there’s a headwind, there’ll still be a big group. It could end up in a sprint and I wouldn’t have any need to brake or change gear... I’m not at 100 percent of my possibilities. I’m a bit of an outsider.”
Gilbert has endured an ill-starred 2016 campaign to date, Vuelta a Murcia victory notwithstanding. He crashed at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, fell ill at Paris-Nice, missed Milan-San Remo and then sustained a broken finger on the eve of his main objectives of the spring. “But last year, I crashed at Flèche, and in the end that was more serious,” Gilbert said. “I’ve seen worse, I won’t complain. You have to put things in perspective too.”
Indeed, earlier in his press conference, Gilbert had called for perspective in the coverage afforded to his and teammate Loïc Vliegen’s altercation with a motorist last week. Gilbert has admitted using pepper spray – deemed an illegal weapon under Belgian law – during the argument, and has been questioned by police on the matter.
“I regret the magnitude this matter has taken in the media,” Gilbert said. “I think given the current state of alert in Belgium, there are other, more important things to report at the moment. I feel ill at ease given the victims and all of those who are still in hospital after the events of recent weeks.
“I won’t go into details on this matter, my statement on the subject was very precise. I am confident in the justice system, and if I’m found to have done wrong, I’ll take responsibility. I hope that will be reciprocated by the other people involved.”