This day last year, Philippe Gilbert was, by his own admission, “almost certain” that he would win Amstel Gold Race. Twelve months and one high-profile transfer to BMC later, however, and Gilbert enters the third week in April scrambling for form after an underwhelming start to the campaign.
“Last year, I was almost certain that I would win. This time, it’s different…” Gilbert said in a press conference in Liège on Friday, according to dhnet.be.
In 2011, Gilbert followed up a commanding win atop the Cauberg by rattling off victories at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and such was his condition that anything less than a full house in the trio of hilly classics would almost have seemed a failure.
That triptych was the masterpiece of Gilbert’s career to date, but he stressed that producing a carbon copy in 2012 would be nigh-on impossible.
“I’m not thinking about the treble. The important thing is my condition and to win races. I’ve never been interested in records,” he said. “Above all, I want to return to a good level.”
The precise reasons behind Gilbert’s low-key start to 2012 remain unclear, although since then he has endured a litany of misfortunes, including illness and dental problems at Tirreno-Adriatico, and a crash on the Cipressa at Milan-San Remo. It never rains but it pours.
“I don’t want to say any more for fear that it won’t be exaggerated even more,” Gilbert said. “The important thing is to get back in the game. Above all I want to get a result on the bike before saying what it might be.”
After his travails through the early months of the season, some light was shed on the end of Gilbert’s tunnel at Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday, where he finished in 12th place. At the same race in 2011, of course, Gilbert ignited a remarkable winning streak that would continue all the way to stage one of the Tour de France in July.
“It’s hard to draw big conclusions from the race on Wednesday,” he said. “This time [Amstel] will be longer, harder, the level will be higher and the riders more motivated. But for the first time in a long time, I was there in the finale and I was able to play a role.”
While Gilbert was reluctant to make any bold declarations about his goals for the coming week, he was adamant that he was finally overcoming the unseen obstacles that have stalled him to date.
“My problems are behind me, even if I don’t really know what I had. It’s a combination of a lot of small things, which in the end can become a big problem. To be at your best in this walk of life, you need to be 100%. I didn’t realise that how much of an effect dental problems could have on the body.”
The finale of Amstel Gold Race is altered slightly from last year, with the gap between the penultimate climb of the Keutenberg and the finale atop the Cauberg reduced by two kilometres. “It’s only a small change, but it could make a bigger difference,” warned Gilbert, who knows that Amstel will be an important indication of his form ahead of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“The top 10 at Amstel is often the same top 10 as at Liège. It’s up to me to be in there.”