Twelve months ago, Philippe Gilbert was busy downplaying expectations ahead of the classics, but a year on, the Belgian champion is putting a brave face on his chances at the Tour of Flanders after a difficult beginning to life at BMC.
Stricken by illness and dental problems in recent weeks, Gilbert has appeared a shadow of his former self thus far in 2012. Dropped as soon as the pace went up at E3 Harelbeke last Friday, Gilbert quickly abandoned, and he fared little better at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, rolling in a distant 39th.
At the BMC pre-race press conference in Kortrijk on Friday, Gilbert acknowledged that his early-season form offered no indications of his possibilities for the Tour of Flanders. Whereas last year he entered the race bracketed among the favourites with Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, this time around Gilbert insisted that he would be pleased simply to still be in contention come the finale.
"I’m not in a situation where I can say I’m coming to finish in the top 10 or top 5 or the podium. I have nothing behind me to say something. It’s just difficult to know where I am now and what I can do," Gilbert said. "My biggest hope is to be there in the final and play with the best riders. It will already be something good for the confidence also.
"I was not that good in Harelbeke and Wevelgem. I had a good week in training since, and I can only be better because I can’t be any worse than that. I can just be better but it’s hard for me to say if I can play with the best or not."
Instead, Gilbert expressed the hope that he can recover his verve of 2011 by the time the Ardennes classics roll around later in April. "I hope now that my condition will go up until Liège. That’s my goal. I hope to be 100% in Liège to defend my title there."
Gilbert’s low-key early season displays have been something of a cause célèbre in the Belgian media over the past month, and the large crowd assembled on Friday afternoon was as keen to discuss the reasons behind his travails as his chances at De Ronde.
"There are certain people who exaggerated in my favour last year and said I was the king of Belgium and it was really exaggerated," said Gilbert. "Now it’s a bit the opposite, as I’m not on the same level but the most important thing for me is my own confidence and the confidence of my team. The rest doesn’t really concern me as much."
Gilbert confessed that he has endured the most trying period of his career in recent weeks, as he balances chases his form with dealing with the fervent expectations of the Belgian public.
"I could be better because I haven’t done anything yet this year, but I haven’t lost my morale during what has been, I think, the hardest part of my career to date," he said. "But I’m motivated and experienced, and when the legs are there, I’ll be up at the front again. It’s a question of time, and I hope it starts from this Sunday."
While Gilbert is unlikely to prove to be the strongest man in the race on Sunday, the Tour of Flanders is often a race decided as much by tactical intrigue as it is by pure horsepower. With Thor Hushovd, George Hincapie, Greg Van Avermaet and Alessandro Ballan also at their disposal, BMC have a number of cards to play in the Ronde’s new, more exacting finale.
"We have a plan. It’s not the plan we were expecting to have a few weeks ago, but we will adapt," directeur sportif John Lelangue said enigmatically.
Gilbert said that he could see one of two scenarios unfolding as the race tackles its three circuits over the Kwaremont and the Paterberg. "It might be that a group of outsiders goes from distance, like Chavanel, and only a super Cancellara or a super Boonen could go across to them, or else we might see a finale with the form riders. In each case, it would be a nice race, but it wouldn’t necessarily have the same winner."
Of course, Gilbert has not been alone in his struggles to date, as BMC's expensively-assembled classics squad has thus far misfired. Three months into the season, the BMC squad boasts just two victories, both courtesy of Cadel Evans at Critérium International. A surprising statistic given the quality at its disposal, but manager Jim Ochowicz did not appear unduly concerned.
"I’m satisfied with where we are today, but we’re looking for more in the future," he said. Gilbert and BMC will be hoping the wheel begins to turn on Sunday.