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Belgian confident of strong showing in Ardennes Classics
A relaxed and confident Philippe Gilbert heads home to Belgium after a week-long training camp in Majorca, one of the final steps in his preparation for a season in which he is expected to make an impact on some of cycling's biggest races.
Installed as an early favourite for this year's Milano-Sanremo and Ronde van Vlaanderen, 27-year-old Gilbert signalled that the Ardennes Classics of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne could be his ultimate goal when the spring one-day races begin in two month's time.
"I want to win the Ardennes Classics, maybe more than Flanders and Sanremo. I've been living there for 25 years, they're my training roads and I know them back-to-front," he told Cyclingnews on the final day of his team's training camp in Majorca.
Liège, in particular, appears to be firming as a possible crux of his 2010 season. The combination of a fourth place finish there last season and a boost of confidence provided by victory in the similarly hilly Giro di Lombardia have raised his own expectations of a result.
"My win at Lombardia had a lot of positive impacts on me - It gave me a lot of confidence and self belief. It's increased the possibilities too, especially for a race like Liège. Last year I had confidence but wasn't sure I could actually win the race. But now I know I can win that race."
Despite his obvious desire to win on home roads, Gilbert will mount a strong challenge at both Milano-Sanremo and Ronde van Vlaanderen this season. Third at Flanders in 2009 is evidence he can challenge for victory at the cobbled classic, while his Lombardia triumph was enough to immediately convince some observers that similar success in Sanremo is possible.
"It's still two months away so it's too soon to say, but I have it in my head. I want to win those races [Sanremo and Flanders]; it's a dream that's been in my head for five years," he said.
Gilbert's statements in relation to his big-race objectives are inevitably delivered with measure of caution, the Belgian all too aware that bold statements are easier said than done. "It's not my style to say I will win this race and this race. I have the reserve to say I have the condition and that I dream of winning this race or that race, but it's never good to say 'I will win this race', because you will end up with the whole bunch on your back. It's not good to have that sort of image."
While his glut of wins and the title of Belgian sportsman of the year have already sent Gilbert's star soaring, the sudden departure of Cadel Evans at the end of last season has seen him thrust even further into the spotlight as the major focal point for his team. Confident he can cope with the added pressure, he will take his queue from his former-teammate.
"I was surprised when Cadel left the team," he said. "I was disappointed because he was a very good rider and important for the team, his objectives meant he came with big motivation and everybody around him would feed off that."
Aside from their roster and leadership roles, Omega Pharma-Lotto have also made changes to their preparations for the new season, in an effort to avoid the slow start the squad got off to in 2009. Gilbert admitted to being one kilogram lighter than the same point 12 months ago and has placed an emphasis on the establishment of a solid base.
"We've done five, five-and-a-half hours every day here at the training camp, it's been a lot of work but I think it will be good for the future," he said. "Last year we had a different trainer who prescribed less training and it was not enough. This year we're doing more hours, which I think is the best idea. I'm feeling good."
Gilbert will head home to Belgium on Friday morning, but will return to Majorca for a week prior to his season start at the Tours of Qatar and Oman. His lead up to Milano-Sanremo will include Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Paris-Nice. "I want to start the season with good condition, but I won't be looking for results straight away. I will wait for the Classics season."