Philippe Gilbert may have conquered the world in 2012, but the BMC rider’s thoughts turn once again to local battles as he faces into the new campaign. Born and raised in Remouchamps, a stone’s throw from the route of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Ardennes Classics have always been the centrepiece of his year and his raison d’être through the winter months, a fact that not even the rainbow jersey on his back can change.
“It’s always the same week for me, always the Ardennes, always the third week of April,” Gilbert said when asked about his objectives for 2013 at the BMC team presentation in Nazareth, Belgium on Friday.
Such was the alarming facility with which Gilbert reeled off wins at Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège in April 2011, many began to speculate that the Belgian could land victory in all five monument classics before the end of his career. While Gilbert will again line up among the favourites at Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, however, he was adamant that his principal focus would be on regaining command of his fiefdom in the Ardennes.
“I will start Milan-San Remo with ambition but we will be maybe 15 potential winners at the start, so it’s harder to win this race,” Gilbert said, explaining that raw power usually wins out on the stiff slopes of the Ardennes, whereas chance plays a greater role on the Riviera. “At Liège, if you’re on the top level, it’s maybe two or three guys who can win, but at San Remo, it’s a lot of guys.
“To win San Remo, you need good timing and a bit of luck also; a good feeling but also the right reaction from the other riders behind, like we saw with Simon Gerrans when he won. It was perfect.”
Gilbert’s eagerness to return to repeat his 2011 Liège triumph is perhaps underpinned by two motivating factors. Firstly, a reigning world champion has not won La Doyenne since Moreno Argentin in 1987 and secondly, Gilbert may feel the need to reassert his pre-eminence on home roads after his listless spring campaign of last year. Certainly, he was not keen to dwell on the problems that beset him last spring and roughened the edges of a hitherto smooth rapport with his home press.
“I had some health problems and I lost a lot of power because of this. It’s never easy to keep fighting on the high level when you have some little problems,” Gilbert said, before firmly directing questions to other avenues: “I think we’re here to talk about the new season. We talked enough about this last season.”
Gilbert categorically ruled out the prospect of tackling Paris-Roubaix – “I would have to do a few months of preparation, reconnoitre the course and test material, and I haven’t done that” – and seemed nonplussed by the prospect of the Amstel Gold Race finale changing to match that of his victorious world championships ride in Valkenburg. “The goal is still the same, you control the race until the last time at the bottom of the Cauberg and then the strongest wins.”
Tour Down Under
Gilbert begins his season at the Tour Down Under next week and is also pencilled in to ride the Tour of Oman before returning to race in Europe. Question marks over his participation in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad aside, Gilbert’s plans up to the end of April seem quite straightforward, though the second phase of his season is all to be decided.
“If I’m in the selection for the Tour, it will be to help the team, to help Cadel or Tejay, because I saw in 2011 the energy you need to fight for the green jersey,” he said. “When you work for someone else, it’s not possible to fight to win a stage or a jersey or something. Either you give everything to the team or you for your own chance, but not both together.”
Whatever his summer programme, the demanding world championships circuit in Florence in September presents Gilbert with a fine opportunity to repeat his rainbow triumph. In any case, he declared himself pleased with the foundations he had laid for himself during the off-season and credited his Monaco residency for shielding him from the full brunt of expectation and demand that faces the rainbow jersey in a nation where cycling is the main box office attraction.
“It’s very easy to say no to things when you live in Monaco and not in Belgium. If you’re in Belgium, you can always say yes because you’re only ever an hour away from Brussels. But you lose a half day here, a half day there and at the end of the winter, you lose maybe two weeks.”
Instead, Gilbert said that he has almost three full months of training behind him and believes that he is well equipped to deal with the challenges posed by an emerging generation of contenders, including Peter Sagan, who he tips to continue his rapid development in 2013: “He’s smart, he’s fast, he’s strong and hard to beat.”
As Gilbert gets his new season underway in Australia next week, the spectre of cycling’s past continues to cloud its present, with the ruminations of the Lance Armstrong case continuing to overshadow the feats of the contemporary peloton. “Unfortunately, it’s still linked to cycling,” he said. “I hope that the page will turn quickly and that we will be left in peace.”