After a couple of lacklustre races in Flanders, it is clear that Philippe Gilbert (BMC) is definitively not at the level he was last year. Some people still think that the Belgian champion is playing hide and seek but according to Gilbert they can be assured that this is not the case.
The best rider of 2011 got dropped from the main group on the Taaienberg on Friday afternoon in the E3-Prijs Harelbeke and also during Sunday's Gent-Wevelgem he was unable to keep up with the best. Afterwards he referred to a tooth problem which drained his energy levels and cause him to lose weight. On Sunday morning he hoped for improvement while pointing out that he wasn't playing a game.
"Certainly not. I'm getting a lot of questions and attention from the press about this which is not pleasant at all but it's part of the job," Gilbert said. "Sooner or later the good form will come back. There's still the confidence from my fans and team. I had ambition for these races so this isn't fun. Anyway, Gent-Wevelgem has never been my race. Two years ago I was lucky to be in the breakaway and finish third but on paper it's not my race. Even when I'm good it's a hard race for me to win. My job will be to set-up Thor Hushovd and Greg Van Avermaet who's going really well and fast in such a finish. Thor wanted to be good here – more than in the E3-Prijs – so he'll be there."
Once across the finish line Gilbert had been in the picture once, when attacking in the kilometers ahead of the Kemmelberg.
"On the climbs it's impossible for me to do something but on the wide roads ahead of them there are possibilities. I wanted to anticipate ahead of the Kemmelberg, hoping they would doubt and get a bit of a gap like I did two years ago with Breschel and Pozzato. If it works out you don't have the stress to fight for your position and an easier ascent. You never know whether it will work out; it didn't but I tried," Gilbert said while standing in the safety of a doorway in the BMC team bus.
Once on the Kemmelberg there was no more Gilbert in sight. "I was always too far, in a bad position around 50th, 60th place. On the climb it's hard to gain spots and in the descent there are always gaps between the groups. Then you have to wait and hope it comes back together. The first time that worked out because everybody was still fresh but the last time the gaps were big and it didn't happen.
"It was an extremely fast day. What I learned is that I was slightly better. And even though these are completely different races I felt more comfortable today. Harelbeke is one of the toughest of the season and this is one of the easiest. It's not easy to make a call about it. I wasn't enjoying a super day but it was better, which is good."
When looking back on his day Gilbert figured that though his personal performance wasn't what he hoped it to be, that was in contrast to the performance from his BMC team which rode a good Gent-Wevelgem.
"For me personally I'm not satisfied but the team had Greg Van Avermaet and Ballan in front. Thor Hushovd was in my group and we doubted whether to start the chase on the lead group but it was too much of a risk to bring along men like Farrar, Greipel and Cavendish. So we decided that we would wait and see. If it would come back together we would play the card of Hushovd and if not we hoped for the two in front. I heard Greg crashed in the sprint so I hope he's alright."
One week ahead of the Tour of Flanders, there's little chance that Gilbert will suddenly be able to keep up with favorites like Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack-Nissan-Trek) and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep). The Belgian champion explained that he can't do anything else than train and hope for quick improvement.
"I think that a week can change a lot so I have to keep on working and stay cool like always. Things can only improve. Flanders? I don't think so but you never know. You have to be realistic as my optimal form is far away. I know that everything that happens will be an improvement since my form is at the rock bottom. I've never been this bad in my career. Knowing that there's only room for improvement makes it sort of fun. I've got a week to train well at home, doing long and easy rides."
Whereas 12 months ago Gilbert captured all the attention in cycling-crazy Belgium, that spotlight has now turned to Tom Boonen after his two wins in three days. Gilbert didn't mind that and figured it was a good thing for everybody that Boonen started winning again after a lacklustre 2011.
"I'm happy a Belgian won. Tom is one of the best Belgian riders so I'm happy for him. Last year I never criticized him when he had bad moments. I respect him, even when he's not riding well. It's good for him, for Belgian cycling, for the sponsors, for everybody. It's a rider who attracts a large crowd so it's a good." A Walloon journalist kept the hope alive and asked Gilbert whether he would be pleased if a deal would be set-up: the Flemish classics for Boonen and the Ardennes Classics for Gilbert.
"That would be a good deal. There's still a long road ahead of me to achieve that. You never know as there's still a bit of time before we get there so like I said, I can only improve. It'll be easier to say something about possible wins once the form is back up."