By Jean-François Quénet in Faro, Portugal
It's kind of strange to see Philippe Gilbert beginning his season only in the second half of February. The up-and-coming Belgian is known for loving his job to such an extent that he wants to start racing as early as possible. He won a stage in the Tour Down Under in January 2004 and was about to claim the French opener GP La Marseillaise in 2005 when a marshal sent him on the wrong road. His late start this year is due to an operation he underwent.
"I had four stitches on my left leg and it was fine," Gilbert explained before starting stage 1 of the Volta ao Algarve. But two weeks later there was a risk of infection and, again, I got operated on. That time, I had 15 stitches. I couldn't ride my bike anymore. I stopped for nine days. Then I started training again slowly. But I wasn't too upset. It was my first forced stop since I turned pro so I didn't take it badly."
It's questionable whether he'll be in his best shape to defend his title at the Het Volk or not. One year ago he created a huge sensation by becoming the first Walloon to win the Flemish event for which all of Belgian cycling fans expected Tom Boonen to inaugurate his rainbow jersey with a victory at home.
"At the Het Volk, it'll be mostly up to the wind to decide if I maybe can do it again or not," Gilbert reckoned. "If it's a head wind like last year, it'll be extremely tactical and I might be able to play my cards, but if it's a side, there'll be a need for super good legs and I don't know if it'll be my case after this slight delay in my preparation. But I don't mind actually, because I only take part in great races so I'll have other chances to show myself and I'd be happy to peak one month later than last year. It would coincide with the Tour of Flanders."