Belgian star Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) dealt perfectly with high expectations as he claimed the victory in the first of the Ardennes Classics, Amstel Gold Race, on Sunday. Gilbert will now be one of the top favourites in his home race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège next weekend.
At the end of last season, the Wallonian one-day specialist racked up an impressive series of wins, including Paris-Tours and the Giro di Lombardia. On Sunday, he made another leap forward by grabbing his first major Spring Classics victory. His uphill sprint win also sealed the first victory of the 2010 season for his Belgian team.
"I started as a favourite, so it's just beautiful to be able to win it and live up to the expectations," a proud Gilbert said at the post-race press conference in Valkenberg, The Netherlands.
Earlier, Gilbert had told Belgian television that he felt he was the strongest rider in the race. "I waited in the sprint until 350 meters to go. Then I went like I did last year in the sprint for fourth place. That last fifty meters I had time to enjoy the victory, those were the most beautiful seconds of my career," he said.
Gilbert was dominant in the sprint to the line, but had also been active in the 20 kilometers leading up to the finale. The eventual winner always seemed in control of affairs. "I was feeling good right from the start. I received a lot of help from the team and always rode near the front among the first thirty or forty riders. We also had several riders in the finale like Daniel Moreno and Jurgen Van Den Broeck, that was a great help," Gilbert said.
His victory rewarded the decision to hold back during an attack 10 kilometres before the finish. "The course started bending to the right, getting me more and more into the headwind; that was hard. Marc Sergeant told me to wait a bit through the radio. That was a vital decision in helping me to the victory, otherwise I would've been caught back much later and I would probably not have been recovered in time for the sprint."
Gilbert is one of the few riders who is capable of combining the Flemish one-day races like the Tour of Flanders with the Ardennes Classics. His versatility enhanced by the fact that he is in the picture at races throughout the entire season.
"From Milano-Sanremo onwards my form constantly improved. During the winter I said that these [the Ardennes] are my races. I wanted to be good in Flanders, too but this week mattered most. I'm on schedule, right on time. It's not easy," Gilbert said.
"Winning now or at the end of the season is the same; it's always a high level. It doesn't matter when you win," Gilbert said. "Now I've got a lot of experience in one-day races, also by winning the Giro di Lombardia and Paris-Tours. It boosts my self-confidence and motivation. I believe a rider gets stronger with each win because he knows himself a little better. The other riders in the team are more confident too and they know their role better."
While Gilbert's rivals at the cobbled Classics, such as Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, tend to skip the Ardennes, he explained that it was only logical for him to ride all the Classic races.
"You can do all the classics if you're an all-rounder. There's enough racing going on, so for me it's ideal as preparation. Other riders start in Flanders too, although they don't have the same capabilities. Of course pure climbers don't start in Flanders but there are several ways to arrive in the Ardennes in top form," he said.
After his victory at the Tour of Flanders, Fabian Cancellara announced his dream of capturing all five of cycling's Monuments: Milano-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro di Lombardia. Although Gilbert has only captured one of the events on the list, he too hinted that the quintet could form a goal for the future.
"I don't see why I wouldn't be able to win all of these races," Gilbert said. "It's not the first year that I've combined the Flemish and Ardennes Classics. I did Flanders too last year. Paris-Roubaix is more difficult for me but that might get better during the next few years; for the other races it's certainly possible."
Gilbert's win at Amstel will also boost his standing in the International Cycling Union's world rankings. He admitted that assuming the number one position currently held by Spanish star Luis Leon Sanchez Gil was an objective.
"Number one in the ProTour is a real goal. There's no longer a jersey so the people don't see it but it's still important. It's something very important for a rider. I'll be second or third now but I want to be number one," he said. "First I want to be number one for a week, or only a day, then the next goal will be becoming number one at the end of the season. It's not easy for a one-day specialist, though, as there are many points at stake in the stage races."
Gilbert's first opportunity to assume the world rankings will come next Sunday, when he will aim to win his second Monument, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The race winds its way through the Walloon region of Belgium; home soil for Gilbert. Last year he finished fourth in Liège and he has high hopes to improve on that result.
"Liège is a dream for me. This victory will boost my moral. It's important, also for the team, to start with good sensations and, of course, without pressure in Liège," he said.
In between the two big races there's also Flèche Wallonne, the mid-week Classic which finishes on top of the steep Mur of Huy. Although initially reserved in his assessment of his chances for the race, Gilbert's growing confidence quickly shone through.
"Flèche is not a race for me. It's a nice race but the finish is a bit too long and too steep for me. Maybe the new course suits me better though. I have to be there when the race goes over the Mur the second time (of three ascents). The selection can be different and if we're only with ten riders I might have my chance too."