Gilbert aiming for third Belgian road title

Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) will line up in Antwerp Sunday with visions of a third Belgian road title to go along with his championships in 2011 and again last year.

Gilbert has seen a resurgence this season since his high point in 2011, when he took 18 wins, including Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Since repeating his national title last year and moving from BMC Racing to the Belgian super squad this year, Gilbert has added five more wins to his palmares, including the Tour of Flanders and another Amstel.

"Up to now, 2017 has been an extraordinary year for me," Gilbert said. "Winning two Classics as prestigious as De Ronde van Vlaanderen and Amstel Gold Race, with my country's colours on my back, was a unique experience. These are important moments in the career of a rider, especially because winning with such a special jersey on your shoulders is never simple.

"The Belgian Champion jersey is one of the symbols of international cycling. Like Italy, France or Spain, Belgium is among the countries where cycling has its roots, where the bicycle is part of the culture. If you page through the Golden Book of Belgian Championships you get a sense of the quality of the race."

The 34-year-old is coming into this year's championship race after having won the first road stage at the Tour de Suisse, providing a nice show of form as he works toward the Tour de France.

"I felt good there," he said of the Swiss race. "The route was challenging but not particularly hard. The victory on the first stage was the icing on the cake. It was a hard day on the bike and the weather was hot, so winning there was an important omen."

Gilbert is obviously hoping that omen pays off with another Belgian champion's jersey, but he admits the course in Antwerp is not especially suited to his skills.

The mostly flat course – a 17km circuit that the peloton will tackle 14 times – does include two stretches of cobblestones to break things up. One section of cobbles is 1,000 metres long, while the other is just 400 meters. Gilbert is hoping the strength of his team will help make up for the lack of vertical challenges on the course.

"We have a strong team and perhaps we can try and come up with something, especially as the pavé can spice up the race," he said. "The goal is to try and keep the jersey within the team. When you're on the starting line for a race there is always a chance of winning."

And like every national championship road race, the tactics among teams of various sizes and levels can get complicated.

"There could even be an immediate breakaway group with one rider from each team. It has happened before," Gilbert said. "It will be important to be patient and take on the race intelligently as a team. Often in the past, everything seemed finished already midrace, but then in the final, things changed in the blink of an eye. It is an unpredictable race and this is why it's so fascinating. My fans will also be there; they will come well-organized to follow the race and this is another reason to do well."

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