Philippe Gilbert was a teammate of Axel Merckx when he clipped off the front of the peloton to claim the bronze medal in Athens in 2004, and the Belgian understood there and then that the consolation prizes at the Olympic Games and the World Championships were very different.
"That's where you understand the importance of a medal. When you get a [silver or bronze] medal at the Worlds, it's a big disappointment, whereas at the Olympics, it's a moment of celebration. That's the big difference," Gilbert said, according to the Belga news agency.
"The Olympic road race has enormous sporting stakes. It's a result that follows you for the next four years and even for life. It's special."
Gilbert lines out for his third Olympic road race in Rio on Saturday – he was also in London in 2012, but missed Beijing four years previously – and is well aware of the other major difference between the Worlds, which he won in 2012, and the Games. Where the top nations at the World Championships can field squads of nine riders, five is the maximum permitted at the Olympics, making the race notoriously difficult to manage.
"With five riders, you can't just simply control the race. In 2012, in London, Great Britain had a golden team. It was impossible to have better and yet they weren't able to control the race," said Gilbert. "This race will be open all the way to the finish."
Gilbert arrived in Brazil on Tuesday and reconnoitred the road race parcours the following day. He warned of the difficulty of the finishing circuit, tackled three times, which takes in the stiff climb of Vista Chinesa.
"The first part of the climb is going to hurt people. It's very steep and quite long, at four kilometres, with sections that regularly go over 10% and even up to 18%," Gilbert said. "It's a serious climb, the likes of which doesn't exist in Belgium really. You don't find climbs like that often. It's very demanding."
Both Gilbert and teammate Greg Van Avermaet were in agreement that an open, attacking race would suit Belgium best, rather than a controlled run as far as the final lap of the Vista Chinesa circuit. Van Avermaet and Gilbert are joined in the Belgian line-up by Tim Wellens, Laurens De Plus and Serge Pauwels.
"I'll have to choose the right moment to get into a break with solid competitors, that would be best. Beyond that, you have to anticipate a bit on the last climb,” said Van Avermaet, who gave himself a "five percent" chance of landing a medal.
"We're not the favourites but we're coming here with a good team. For me, there's the hope of an ideal scenario or a super day that would allow me to win the race."
While Tour de France winner Chris Froome (Great Britain) perhaps carries the best form into the Rio Olympics, Gilbert picked out Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) as the favourite for gold on Saturday afternoon.
"I think the favourite will be a climber but one who knows how to descend too," Gilbert said. "Nibali prepared specifically for the Games by riding a quiet Tour de France. He's been up there in one-day races too, which Froome has never done."
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