If there were any doubts about Philippe Gilbert's ability to return to the cobbled classics, they have been firmly rebutted this week with a pair of runner-up spots at Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke that might leave the BMC management slightly sheepish at having held the Belgian back for the Ardennes during his five-year spell there.
Gilbert, who joined the American team on the back of winning the 'Ardennes triple' of Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2011, repeatedly stated his desire to ride the cobbled one-day races from 2014 onwards, but there were rumours of animosity between him and head honcho Greg Van Avermaet, and the two were largely kept on different race programmes.
There was added pique, then, to the finale of E3 Harelbeke, as Gilbert, now riding for Quick-Step Floors, wound up in a successful three-man group with Van Avermaet—though it was his old foe who reasserted his dominance.
"I have no problem losing to Greg. For a while the media have played on a bad atmosphere between us. We're two very similar riders, we want to attack at the same time, and that was the problem at BMC," said Gilbert, with held out his hand to Van Avermaet after crossing the line.
Gilbert may have lost the race but he has grabbed his second chance at the cobbles with both hands so far. Even for a former world champion who has twice finished on the podium of the Tour of Flanders and twice won Het Volk, the task of returning to prominence at a team where there are already a number of riders who could be outright leaders elsewhere can't be underestimated.
After getting back into the swing of things at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne last month, he was the architect of a successful Dwars door Vlaanderen campaign on Wednesday, forming the first decisive selection before cutting the front group to four on the Paterberg, and his second place felt like a victory as teammate Yves Lampaert went solo in a fine tactical execution. He was in a similar mood at E3, again driving the decisive selection just after the Taiienberg before forging clear with Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen on the Oude Kwaremont, only to be caught out by Naesen's early jump in the headwind sprint.
"It took me a few weeks to get it back but now it's there," Gilbert said of his feel for Flemish racing.
"It really is unique, it's hard to describe, but it's really is an extremely aggressive way of being. You have to fight for position, brake very late, accelerate hard. If you have too much respect in these races it's over; you can't give anyone too much respect. You have to make your presence felt, and fight. You have to have that mentality.
"I had a hard time rediscovering it, because in the last few years I only did races, like the Ardennes, where it's decided à la pédale – whoever is strongest is at the front. Here it's very different – you really have to fight, and earn your place every metre, before and after every single bend. I have rediscovered the necessary aggression, and that gives me a lot of confidence on a personal level."
In a team that includes Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, and Zdenek Stybar, Gilbert, 34, has done no harm whatsoever to his status in the Quick-Step pecking order ahead of the Tour of Flanders, even if it is Tommeke's last hurrah.
Gilbert insisted it would be misguided to place leadership on one set of shoulders, and pointed once again to the unpredictability of these races, though he is in no doubt that the legs are strong enough.
"The form is there, and that's one of the most important things, but then again it only takes one positioning error. Or there might be a teammate of mine up front and we play his card," he said.
"Nothing is guaranteed, but what is clear is that the form is there."
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