Philippe Gilbert may have lost the habit of racing on the cobbles during his time at BMC, but the old instincts remain. Second place behind Quick-Step Floors teammate Yves Lampaert at Dwars door Vlaanderen not only augurs well for Gilbert’s spring campaign, it also marks his first podium finish in a cobbled classic since the 2010 Tour of Flanders.
Gilbert’s career has oscillated between highs and lows in the intervening period, with moments of inspiration interspersed with spells of ennui, but his confidence has never dimmed. Following his off-season switch to Quick-Step, Gilbert is tackling his first full campaign of cobbled classics since 2012, and he had no concerns about returning to the cut and thrust of racing in Flanders.
“I never doubted it,” Gilbert told reporters in a tent behind the podium afterwards. “I never doubted, because I think I have a certain level of experience in these races all the same. It’s like a guy who plays football: if he’s got a certain skill, he never loses it. It’s the same thing.”
After his trying first season at the team, BMC pressed Gilbert to focus his energies primarily on the Ardennes Classics thereafter, leaving Greg Van Avermaet to lead the line on the cobbles. At a Quick-Step team already replete with leaders, Patrick Lefevere has instead opted to deploy his new signing across the entire spring campaign. Gilbert lines out alongside Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra et al over the next 10 days, before linking up with Dan Martin and Julan Alaphilippe in the Ardennes in late April.
“I’m expected to perform on all terrains,” Gilbert said. “I’ve got quite a few years behind me, a good level of experience that I can share with my teammates.”
As part of a strong Quick-Step team at Dwars door Vlaanderen, Gilbert proved a consummate team player. His attack on Berendries with almost 80 kilometres remaining forced the initial selection, and his fierce acceleration on the Paterberg with 32 kilometres to go helped to form the winning move, as he was by Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) and his teammate Lampaert.
Come the final climb, the Nokereberg, the leading quartet had an advantage of a minute over the chasers, and Gilbert and Lampaert began to set about working over their two breakaway companions by taking it in turns to go on the offensive. Lampaert’s attack with six kilometres to go proved a winner, while Gilbert calmly policed Durbridge and Lutsenko before dispatching them in the sprint for second.
“I had very good legs at Milan-San Remo. Normally I need a couple of days to recover but I felt able to train well straightaway and that was a good sign for today. My form’s been good for a while, but I wasn’t getting the results to show for it,” said Gilbert, who finished the race in odd shoes, one black and one white, after breaking a cleat while avoiding a fall early on. “Today, I was able to express myself. I think collectively we did a great race. The important thing was that the team won, and to get first and second was just super.”
Gilbert’s uneasy coexistence with Van Avermaet, first at Lotto and later at the beginning of their time together at BMC, provoked its share of headlines in Belgium over the years, but there was no hint of disappointment at losing out to his teammate Lampaert in Waregem. He had roomed with Lampaert on international duty at the Richmond Worlds in 2015, and they combined well on Wednesday.
“Sometimes it’s a bigger emotion to have a friend win like that than it is to win for yourself,” Gilbert said. “It was a big moment. I’ve integrated well into the group from the first day together and now there’s a nice period coming up. The goal is definitely to win one of these races, even if second place today isn’t bad. And the most important thing is the way the team performed in general.”
With Tom Boonen, who skipped Wednesday’s race, Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra and Matteo Trentin all on the roster, Quick-Step has no shortage of options for the E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders. Gilbert’s display here suggested that he, too, will be in the mix come the finale, though he downplayed the idea that a result at Dwars door Vlaanderen is a firm indication for the Ronde.
“It doesn’t change anything because I knew my form was good. Getting a result today doesn’t reassure me about Sunday week, because that’s a race where so many different things can happen and where positioning is so important,” Gilbert said. “If you make a positioning error there, your race could be over. If the form is there, it’s there, but the rest, unfortunately, is almost uncontrollable.”