By Daniel Benson
On the eve of the start of the Classics season, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad's defending champion Philip Gilbert is in a confident mood. The Belgian will line-up in tomorrow's 204.5-kilometre test around Gent with race number one pinned to his Silence-Lotto jersey.
"My condition is really good. The only race I've done this year was the Volta ao Algarve. It was a good experience but I was only there to build my form. For me the season starts tomorrow," Gilbert told Cyclingnews.
The highly-regarded Belgian moved from Française des Jeux to Silence-Lotto in the winter after a stellar 2008, in which he triumphed in Paris-Tours and Het Volk. However, despite his new surroundings and the tag of defending champion, Gilbert isn't letting the pressure distract him on the eve of his title defence. "I've moved teams and I'm the defending champion but that's not a reason to be nervous. It's a positive. I'm strong and I've got the experience of knowing what it takes to win this race. Not many in the field have that."
On Wednesday Gilbert and his Silence-Lotto teammates rode the race parcours for a final group ride and Gilbert was willing to predict where the race might be decided. "Each year this race gets harder and harder and there seem to be more climbs but I think there are about six riders who have an equal chance of winning. The key will be the Molenberg. That is the point where the favourites have to pay attention."
This is usually one of the first climbs in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, but in the Omloop it comes as the last one. The jagged cobble stones and 14 per cent gradient are less than 40 kilometres from the finish. "I'm predicting that Cervélo and Katusha will be the strongest teams in the races. Cervélo has Haussler and Hushovd, who are both on fire, while Katusha has strong cards to play on the climbs and if it comes down to a sprint," said Gilbert.
Silence-Lotto directeur sportif, Marc Sergeant, was quick to back his team on the eve of the race. "Wednesday's ride on the route will have really helped us in our preparation. This is probably the best Classics team I've worked with. We have riders for nearly every scenario."