With 18 wins to his name, the 2011 season is already sure to be remembered as Philippe Gilbert’s annus mirabilus, but the Belgian has shown few signs of relenting in these final weeks of the campaign and he lines up at Sunday’s UCI World Championships road race as one of the outstanding favourites to take the rainbow jersey.
The Copenhagen course is something of a curiosity, however: while the circuit itself is arguably not difficult enough for a puncheur such as Gilbert to make the difference, the distance and speed could still be enough to eliminate a number of the fastest finishers from contention.
Speaking at his final pre-race press conference in Virum on Friday morning, Gilbert pointed out that the lightly climbing finishing straight will be an additional complicating factor in a race that seems to defy definition.
“If it’s a sprint finish, I think it will be very difficult because it goes up for 500 metres and you could easily make a mistake by going too early or too late,” Gilbert warned. "It’s not easy to judge your effort and it’s difficult to say when you have to go.”
When pressed as to when he would go, Gilbert broke into a broad smile. “I have no idea,” he grinned. “At the right moment.”
After the press conference finished, Gilbert was a little more expansive about how best to tackle the rise to the line: “I’ve tried it a few times in training and if you go too early you explode on the way. If you start with 300 to go, you can never reach the line in first position, so it’s really hard.”
While that finale provides a testing sting in the tail to the 266km course, the race’s opening salvoes will require particular vigilance. The action gets underway from the centre of Copenhagen and then travels northwards out to the circuit itself, and Gilbert believes that anyone expecting a leisurely amble out of the Danish capital could be in for a sharp surprise.
“I think it will be a very high speed from the start and it’s possible to have some wind also there, so positioning is really important. You’ll have to race at the front, especially in the first 30km and then we will race really hard on the circuit. It’s a pretty easy course, everybody will believe in his own chances and that will make the race very fast.”
Nonetheless, Gilbert estimated that as many as 100 riders could arrive together to contest the finishing sprint, and he insisted that he would not request that the Belgian team ride solely for him.
“A lot of our riders can win. It’s difficult for me to say that I am the only one who could have a chance because it’s not my circuit. I can say this maybe next year in Valkenburg where I have a big chance of winning, but this year I think it’s more free,” he said. “We just have to ride for the right guy and make the right race and also race as a team and not individually. We’ll have to talk in the final. If one of us feels very good, he can have a chance.”
The world championships road race is a unique occasion on the calendar, and so much of its intrigue comes from the often blurred lines between trade and national team loyalties. Speculation has been rife in Copenhagen that Gilbert might find a natural ally in the form of his current training partner and future BMC teammate Thor Hushovd.
“I saw this in the press and I was laughing because it’s typical,” Gilbert said. “In his team there’s also [Edvald] Boasson Hagen, who is also a favourite, so I think it’s more important for him to talk first with Boasson Hagen than to talk with me.
“We’re still friends and we’ll try to win, but we’re not in the same team yet. Maybe next year it’s different, but still, in a world championship you ride for your country and not for a [trade] team.”
Rather than discuss potential pacts between individuals, Gilbert highlighted the mutual understandings that would form between teams with similar goals. Although the likes of Great Britain and Australia will be looking to keep the race together for a bunch sprint, the Belgians might yet find some allies of circumstance as they seek to force a harsh selection and eliminate some of the sprinters.
“I think we are a bit in the same situation as Italy,” he said. “They have Bennati who is faster maybe than me but also not the fastest one, so they are also in a similar situation.”
The Belgian goal, then, is a straightforward one. “To make the race the most difficult possible. After a hard race, it’s always the strongest who emerge.”
Throughout 2011, Gilbert has been among their number. On Sunday, he will be a marked man as he tries to work the oracle one more time.