Gilbert sole leader for BMC at Amstel Gold Race

Belgian the 'Messi of the Cauberg'

Philippe Gilbert and his BMC team will be watched men at this Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, after a one-two at Brabantse Pijl earlier this week – with Ben Hermans leading home Gilbert - and a successful cobbled campaign. Three times a winner at the Dutch race, Gilbert is the undeniable leader but he will have the joined forces of Hermans, Greg Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt and Samuel Sánchez among the seven riders supporting him. Also in the team are Silvan Dillier, Damiano Caruso and the impressive youngster Dylan Teuns.

“With BMC we have a lot of specialists for the one-day races. We saw it in the last weeks and I think I can be confident with a team like this. This helps me to be more relaxed at the start. When you know your team is strong and you can trust them as a leader it’s already a big win,” Gilbert said during a press conference in Belgium on Friday afternoon.

Few have found success on the Cauberg like Gilbert - the Belgian has used the 1.2-kilometre climb to spring board him to four victories including his 2012 World Championship. It’s a climb that he knows well, using it in winter training as he makes use of the marginally warmer weather away from his native Ardennes. One reporter during the press conference described his ability to pull out a result on the Cauberg like Lionel Messi in football - everyone knows what is coming but they are unable to do anything about it. It’s a climb, Gilbert says, that is perfectly suited to him.

“I just like this kind of effort, short and intense. If you look at the percentage of my victories that came on climbs like this it’s a lot. I’ve won a lot of races where it is an uphill finish like this,” he explained. “One of my trainers was saying that the hardest thing in sport is to do this kind of effort. You have to go very deep, physically and mentally, and this takes a lot of energy out of you. This is something hard to do and I don’t think a lot of people can do it.”

Gilbert is the only rider in the current peloton to have won on both the previous incarnation of the route, where the race finished atop the Cauberg, and the new one, where there are almost two kilometres to the finish line once the riders hit the top of the Cauberg. While both routes have brought him success, Gilbert prefers the theatre that the old finish brought to the race.

“I think that it was nicer when it finished on top of the Cauberg because it was more intense and all the public was there, but now you have a lot of people there but also a lot at the finish. Before it was like a stadium,” he explained.

This year will be Gilbert’s tenth appearance at Amstel Gold Race, having only missed it twice since his debut in 2004. He’s been in the top ten every year since 2009 and sits second on the all-time winners list with three victories – only Jan Raas is ahead of him with five. He knows more than most what needs to be done in that crucial final run-in to the bottom of the Cauberg.

“It’s a very nervous approach because the descent, depending on the wind, you are going something like 70 kilometres an hour and it’s not straight so it’s very dangerous,” said Gilbert. “When you turn you just have to see where your position is and only after that can you focus on the effort. You don’t really have time to think about it, you just have to be ready in the days before. It’s not starting on that descent; it’s something you have to work on sometimes weeks before.”

There will be plenty of riders vying for Gilbert’s title this Sunday with the likes of Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) and Joaquim Rodríguez all looking to add the race to their palmarès.

Gilbert, however, is not worried. “In the end it is always the same, the strongest always win. I just have to manage to be the strongest.”

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