The pre-race expectation is that this weekend’s edition of Milan-San Remo will end with a bunch sprint. Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet are two men that plan to make sure that doesn’t happen on Sunday. The Belgian duo have both named La Primavera as their first major target of the season, and assume a joint leadership role with BMC heading into the race.
Gilbert and Van Avermaet last shared this responsibility at the World Championships in Ponferrada in 2014, and as their careers and goals increasingly get entangled in each other’s, they find themselves going up against one another. Unlike some major teams, who have two different cards to play, BMC finds themselves with two of a kind.
“For me, it is an advantage. Two guys are better than one,” said Gilbert during a pre-race press conference at the team’s hotel in Milan. “You see QuickStep, they have three guys. I think for this race it is good. Kwiatkowski and Stybar are pretty much the same so they are in pretty much the same situation. So many things can happen and if I’m not there or Greg isn’t there for one reason or another it’s better to have other options.”
The lack of Le Manie this season does make the prospect of a bunch finish more likely and with the strength of sprinters’ teams, it’s going to be hard to hold them off. However, the return of the Via Roma finish could be one saving grace for an escapee as the run-in to the line is shorter than it has been in recent years.
“I know the finish from TV. It’s good for us both because it’s shorter to the Poggio, one kilometre less almost. So it will be better for us so that the sprinters can recuperate a little bit less,” Van Avermaet said. “I think we will see how it goes in the race. We have two great options, and I think that Phil has had a lot of good results here and I am in good shape. I think we have a really strong team and we are both riders that can go easily over the Cipressa and the Poggio.”
Gilbert’s record at San Remo is the better of the pair with two third places finishes – in 2008 and 2011 – and, unlike Van Avermaet, he has first-hand experience of the Via Roma finish. Van Avermaet’s best performance was 9th in 2011 after he had led alone over the Poggio.
Both know the challenges of making a break stick, Gilbert in particular. The 32-year-old got into what looked like a race-winning move with Ricardo Riccò in 2007 but was caught just outside a kilometre to go. So how much time would they need to make on the Poggio if they wanted to make the move stick?
“Last time I was up there we had eight seconds but Bettini was chasing full gas and they got us in the last kilometre,” said Gilbert, before adding with a smile, “but he was also on the car just before so he was fresher. He did the whole Cipressa on the car. He crashed before the Cipressa and he came hanging on the car, but this is part of the race.”
Gilbert v Van Avermaet
Gilbert and Van Avermaet had similar starts to the season, venturing out to the Middle East before making their debuts in Europe, but their paths have diverged in recent weeks. Gilbert travelled to France for Paris-Nice where he put in a solid performance and spent a day in the mountains classification jersey. Van Avermaet’s trip to Italy bore much more fruit with second place to Zdenek Stybar at Strade Bianche and his first victory of the year on stage three of Tirreno-Adriatico, the same day that he had originally been due to appear before a Belgian Cycling Federation committee to explain his relationship with Dr. Chris Mertens. The hearing will instead take place on April 16.
Van Avermaet is buoyed by his recent success and is confident that he can put up a strong challenge if it does come down to a bunch sprint should the conditions be right.
“After San Remo it is a strange sprint, it’s not always the fastest guys winning. I always have a good sprint after a hard race,” explained Van Avermaet. “In Flanders I was beaten by Fabian but I believe in myself and I believe that I have a good sprint. If you don’t believe in yourself then you have to start racing. I can beat those guys in a race like this but everything has to go perfect.”
Van Avermaet’s start to the season has no doubt been better than that of his teammate and one would expect him to be the stronger of the two on Sunday. Gilbert has already admitted that he’s not in peak form, with the next major target of the Ardennes still a month away but he believes that is enough.
“What do you mean the top level? Everyone is stronger later in the season. You always beat your record from Paris—Nice or Tirreno later,” he said adamantly.
“I’ve always been like this and I’ve never won but I’ve been twice on the podium. I was really close with Riccò the last time we arrived on the Via Roma. It’s possible. I could be closer and never win. You see Cancellara, he’s won it once and been three times second. He’s been close but he’s not won every year.”