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Gilbert: Nothing you did before matters, it's the day that counts

Philippe Gilbert remembers his World Championships victory well.

"We dictated everything that day, and then we won," the Belgian says of Valkenburg 2012, where he soared away on the final ascent of the Cauberg.

"It was a really special day. It was a good course for us, for Belgium, because we had [Tom] Boonen able to win and also me, so two favourites, really taking the race on. When you're announced as the favourites, and you do the race with your team and you finish the job, it's an amazing feeling."

With a few days until the 2017 Worlds road race in Bergen, Norway, there's ample basis for hope that a repeat could be on the cards.

Belgium once again have two top favourites, in Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet, and the strongest team in the race. What's more, Gilbert senses the course will lend itself to his and Belgium's aggressive style of racing.

"It's quite open, because you have a lot of riders who could potentially win. It could be a sprint with a select group, or someone attacking – everything is possible," he says of the Bergen course, featuring 12 laps of a finishing circuit that contains three short climbs.

An open race is exactly what Gilbert wants. He asserted in the latest edition of Procycling magazine that, on paper, Valkenburg was "not hard", but that's precisely what, somewhat paradoxically, made it a hard race.

"I'm always better when it's quite easy because everyone believes in their chance and then it becomes harder because everyone races to win," he said.

"At the start, when it's hard, only three or four guys believe they have a chance to win and 95 per cent of the bunch is riding defensively."

Defensive doesn't seem to figure in Gilbert's vocabulary – not this year, anyway. And that's perhaps the principal reason that there's a 2012 repeat in prospect: Philippe Gilbert is back.

It might seem harsh to say he went away, given he won Amstel Gold, five Grand Tour stages and a Worlds title during his time with BMC, but those five years do seem like something of a wilderness in the light of spring 2017, which saw victories at the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold Race, and the Three Days of De Panne, along with runner-up spots at E3-Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen.

But the results only tell half the story. Gilbert, riding for Quick-Step after leaving BMC, was monstrous, the author of long-range, race-defining attacks time and again. His 50km solo raid at Flanders will go down in history.

"It's not important what you've done in the months before or the seasons before," he says when asked if he's ever been so confident ahead of a World Championships.

"It's the day. That day is all that counts. You have to be good that day, and that's it."

Clearly, Gilbert is refusing to allow complacency to creep in, but later in the interview he does suggest that status does in fact count for something.

"If you're with really smart guys, like [Michal] Kwiatkowski, guys with experience, it's hard to beat them because he can play on the fact he's been world champion also. [Peter] Sagan the same.

"When you've won that race you can say 'ok, I won it so it's up to you to do the work'. You can put pressure on others. It's always an advantage when you've won big races."

Gilbert isn't the only rider on the start line who has won big races this year. He's not even the only one in his own team. Greg Van Avermaet was the other undoubted star of the Classics, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3-Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, and Paris-Roubaix, along with finishing second behind Gilbert at Flanders.

The pair have been granted dual leadership in a mightily well stocked Belgian outfit, which, given their history at BMC, leaves more than a little room for the sort of internal frictions the Worlds seems to do so well.

"When you come to that point when the both of us want to attack or sprint at the same time or same place, it's kind of a conflict sometimes," Gilbert acknowledges.

BMC's way of dealing with that conflict was to keep the two apart, steering Gilbert away from the cobbled classics and keeping him in the Ardennes. At the Worlds, there's no such escape route, and it may be that one ends up having to sacrifice his own chances for the good of the other.

Gilbert said tactics had not been discussed among the Belgian camp before they headed to Norway, but that in any case the big calls can only be made deep into Sunday afternoon.

"It depends on how many guys are there, who is there, how I feel, how he feels – on many many things. It's impossible to say before the race. We have to be honest with each other and speak in the finale."

Communication, Gilbert insists, is "always the key", and he refers – pointedly perhaps – to his current team as evidence.

"In Quick-Step we have this 'problem' every week," he says. "We always start with big names, a lot of riders with talent, but we're honest and I never see any problems. I think it's possible to work like this."

For Gilbert, the Worlds are much like any big one-day race in terms of the ingredients required for success. "You need to be strong, make the right decisions, don't hesitate, don't make mistakes, and then maybe you have a chance."

However, what's on the line is so much greater.

"The rainbow jersey is the biggest symbol of our sport. Winning the Tour de France is special but you don't have the yellow jersey for any other races; it's only for that race that you're special.

"As the world champion, you know the message it has, because you wear it the whole year. Anywhere you go, races, training camps, even training at home, you have something special."

As Gilbert says, not many riders become world champions. Far fewer do it twice. If he can replicate the form of late March and early April, there's no reason why Gilbert can' become the 12th man in history to double up.

"I know what it's like to win, but I also know how hard it is to win," he says. "I've been trying so many times and I only won once. That's maybe what also makes it so special."

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Patrick Fletcher
Patrick Fletcher

Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.