Heading into his sixth season with Française des Jeux, Philippe Gilbert has lost none of the rapid-fire pedaling style that propelled him to victory at the 2006 Het Volk. And while last year's results were disappointing in comparison, he's ready to kick off again at the 2008 Tour Down Under, as Cyclingnews' Jean-François Quénet found out.
Saint-Quentin, in the Picardy region of northern France: Not quite the paradisiacal destination that professional athletes dream about in December, with temperatures hovering around zero degrees Celsius, but this has never bothered the man from Remouchamps, Belgium who has always been seen riding his bike in the Belgian Ardennes since his days in the under 16 ranks, no matter what the weather was like.
So while most teams head south at this time of year, the team backed by the French national lottery remain in Saint-Quentin - home to assistant manager Martial Gayant and a passionate fan base nurtured by the team since its inception 12 years ago.
Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom up north, as the pre-Christmas training camp always begins with a party. "Cycling is a popular sport and I insist on the possibility for any fan to be able to have a drink with his favorite champion once a year," says team boss Marc Madiot. During his career as a rider, the double Paris-Roubaix winner was famous for his loyal following, coloured in the black and yellow of his Renault-Gitane team - a tradition continued with the four leafed clover symbol of Française des Jeux.
Eighteen hundred fans are registered with the team's fan club, and Madiot invited a special one - Lucian, an 82 year-old Belgian who's often seen at the roadside handing up water to riders - to the 11th century Abbey of Vaucelles for the team's party. "I'll do it as long as I'll be alive and healthy," Lucien tells the crowd, adding that Gilbert is one of his favourites being so readily approachable.
"We, the professional cyclists, we aren't demigods, we must stay close to our public," is how Gilbert sees it. He's always been just as eager to please his supporters as his pay agent when it comes to winning races. But after the high of beating then world champion Tom Boonen at Het Volk in 2006 followed by stage wins at the Dauphiné Libéré and Tour of Benelux, last year was a disappointment for Gilbert, who only secured one victory - Stage 1 of the Tour of Limousin.
"I don't look at last season with regrets because I did everything right," he insists. "I had an operation in January and a few more worries later in the year, always when I was ready to perform. But I've been frustrated of course and it gives me a lot of motivation to produce good results in 2008."
To read the full interview, click here.