Philippe Gilbert's extraordinary Tour of Flanders victory last year came as little surprise in the context of the preceding fortnight, during which he had already made several resounding statements of intent. A defending champion can hardly fly in under the radar, but the Belgian's form this time around is certainly far less clear.
Twelve months ago, Gilbert burst Dwars door Vlaanderen apart in the first outing of the main cobbled classics period, finishing second behind teammate Yves Lampaert. He went on to finish second at E3 Harelbeke and then won the Three Days of De Panne, before unleashing himself on that famous 55km solo raid at the Ronde.
This year, after finishing 75th at Milan-San Remo, he was second once again at E3 – this time behind a teammate in Niki Terpstra – and 17th at Gent-Wevelgem, while he chose not to race in the week leading up to Flanders. He has hardly been disappointing, but race dynamics have largely kept him on the leash while teammates have brought in the results.
"The feeling wasn't like last year," Gilbert admitted at Quick-Step Floors' pre-Tour of Flanders press conference in Wielsbeke on Friday evening. "I was good, yes, but I didn't feel really strong. I was ready, but those races were not really important in my eyes – they were only the last training, the last preparation.
"Last year I was on a slightly superior level. We're talking a few percentages, but at that level one per cent can make a big difference. That's how it is. I know it, and I know how to manage my potential, and I'll make do."
Dwars door Vlaanderen swapped places on the calendar with the Three Days of De Panne this year, and Gilbert opted to skip it in order return to his home in Monaco.
"I was trying to avoid the bad weather," he said. "It's been a hard season already, we had snow in first races, then rain, then it was always cold, I was trying to get some warm weather. I think it was a benefit for me, and my body – I was able to recover well. And being at home is also important for me, so that's why I stayed there."
Gilbert explained that he was only able to watch 15 or so kilometres of Dwars before having to leave the house in the final 10 kilometres to pick up his son. "We have a Whatsapp group and there was a lot of reaction on there, so I guessed one of them won," he said.
So far this year there has been a huge amount of buzz around the all-conquering Quick-Step, but none of it has centred on Gilbert. The Belgian team have won every race in Belgium this spring apart from Gent-Wevelgem, but Gilbert has not yet had his chance. After finishing second behind Terpstra at Le Samyn, he found himself marking rivals while the Dutchman was up the road at E3 Harelbeke. At Gent-Wevelgem he attacked ahead of the Kemmelberg but the team would end up working for sprinter Elia Viviani.
Eyebrows were raised at E3 when he eventually attacked from the chase, only for Terpstra, who claimed no knowledge of the attack, to press on with Yves Lampaert at full tilt.
"For sure, when you're second, you always think 'it could have been me at the front', but that's part of the game," Gilbert said. "And in any case, we know that what goes around comes around. Last year I profited from the team as well, the guys helped me really well. This year it's been a bit different but that's part of being in a team.
"You can see we're all united, everyone is focused, everyone speaks not for himself but for the team. The important thing for Sunday is that one of us wins. But it's always nice when it's a teammate."
The collective strength of Quick-Step has been the theme of the Classics so far. Last year there were some tactical headaches when they rubbed shoulders with the likes of Peter Sagan, but this year everything they touch is turning to gold. Gilbert vowed that on Sunday they would change nothing and take the race on once again, and that he personally wouldn't be sucked into playing mind games in the race – even if his comments pre-race could be construed as such.
"We always take responsibility. Some other teams don't. We accept that – even if it's not logical," he said. "We do our race, try to push the race in the direction we want, and put ourselves in a good position.
"I'm not a rider who sucks the wheels of others. I've never ridden like that, and at 35 years old I'm not going to start now. There are riders who work like that, and often lose, but that's not my way of doing things."
Gilbert cut a relaxed figure throughout the press conference but seemed in no mode to waste energy thinking too much about what might or might not happen on Sunday.
"We can speak about plenty of things before the start but that doesn't change anything, it's of no use," he said.
Asked which rivals he'll be watching most closely, he replied: "I'll be looking at my power metre, and that's all that interests me."
As for emulating the spectacular solo victory of last year: "The manner doesn't interest me. It's the result that interests me."
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