Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet, BMC Racing’s co-leaders for this Saturday’s Belgian season opener at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, were in agreement Friday that although the first cobbled race of 2016 is an important race and crucial benchmark, there are bigger targets down the road that they've marked off on their race calendars.
Speaking at a team press conference alongside team General Manager Jim Ochowicz and Sport Director Valeria Piva, the two Belgian stars expressed excitement to begin their spring Classics campaigns in earnest while simultaneously making it clear that they're more focused on the cycling Monuments that lie ahead - the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Nevertheless, Piva said his leaders go into the race as favourites, and the strong line-up of riders BMC brought to the race are ready to support their leaders for the win.
"The expectation is to win the race," Piva told the assembled journalists. "We have here two of the favourites, I think. Philippe Gilbert has already won many times this race, and Greg was also in the final last year and fought to try to win, so the ambitions are quite clear."
Gilbert won the race previously in 2006 and 2008 while Van Avermaet has been close but never reached podium's top step. He was second in 2014 in a cold, wet race behind Ian Stannard of Team Sky. Last year he was with the leaders near the finale but missed the final move that included Etixx-QuickStep's Niki Terpstra, Tom Boonen and Stijn Vandenbergh, along with eventual repeat winner Stannard.
Van Avermaet appears poised to fight for the win again this year after starting his season at the tours of Qatar and Oman, where he scored seven top-10 finishes in the Middle East races and was third overall in Oman.
"It's been a good preparation," he said on Friday. "It's been a little bit different weather, but I think I did pretty good this week. We came and did the recon on Wednesday with good weather. It's good to feel the cobbles again and see the roads again because it was a long time ago I was on the roads.
"I was a few times second and third, had some good results, not winning but I'm pretty happy with my shape," Van Avermaet said of the season openers in the desert. "I'm in one of my best conditions ever at the start here. It's pretty good to start the Classics season with a feeling like this, and it can only get better."
After starting his season in Dubai and Spain, Gilbert has the same number of race days as his teammate, but he also scored a win at the one-day Vuelta a Murcia. The 33-year-old is bringing good form to the race, but he says it's not his best.
"I think in the past sometimes I was even better, but I was younger and it was easier to get the condition," Gilbert said. "And also my goals were different. I knew it was not possible - or not realistic - to win Flanders or Liege or the other races, so I was trying to target this kind of race, which is more for a young one; it's only 200km, so when you're younger it's possible to win this.
"When you get older I think your goals are different, and you try to go later in the best form, so that's why I change a bit my approach for these races," he said. "I know I don't have to be 100 percent now, so I'm good, but still a lot of work to do to be really good."
When the race was a top target for Gilbert - who has won a World Championship, Amstel Gold three times, Lombardia twice, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallonne - he obviously performed well. Omloop [called Het Volk in 2006] was the first major win of his career. It launched one of the best Classics careers of the past decade.
Asked how a win at Omloop on Saturday would compare to his 2006 victory, Gilbert was effusive.
"That day was like the best day so far on the bike for me," he said. "It was very exciting to win. If I win tomorrow I will also be very happy, but not as happy as 10 years ago, because also the effect of surprise and expectations and pressure you have on yourself to win an important race, and when it's the first one, it's always like another feeling than when you've already won some different races. My feelings will be different, but it will still be a very important win."
BMC Racing for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: Jempy Drucker , Philippe Gilbert, Floris Gerts, Daniel Oss, Manuel Quinziato, Michael Schär, Greg Van Avermaet, Rick Zabel