Gilbert banking on his diesel engine for Paris-Roubaix despite Flanders splutter

After a disappointing Tour of Flanders, owing to illness, a motivated Philippe Gilbert returns to action at Paris-Roubaix this weekend.

The Belgian has only raced 'The Hell of North' on two occasions in his career - firstly in 2007, before returning last year after a long hiatus. During that time away from the cobbles of Roubaix, the 36-year-old established himself as one of the most prolific one-day riders of his generation, with wins in three of cycling's Monuments and a road world title added to his palmarès.

Although he lacks Paris-Roubaix experience, Gilbert cannot be ignored on Sunday, even if his recent form has been hit by an illness that saw him abandon both Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders.

"I was sick before Flanders and it wasn't easy to leave the race like that because it was a big objective and I was working hard. The shape was coming but that's how it is. This is sport and if you get sick it's over," Gilbert said at his team's press conference on Thursday evening.

"That's why I decided to quit the race, not go too deep into my reserves and just try and recover. I'm better, and I hope to be good on Sunday." 

Gilbert's form this spring can be described as steady rather than spectacular. He has often lined up as Patrick Lefevere's on-field coordinator, orchestrating plays from deep and bringing teammates into position rather than seeking the glory of victory. Perhaps that's age, perhaps there are just fresher riders within the QuickStep offensive line, but Gilbert's experience and class ensure he will be a marked rider on Sunday.

After the frustration of Flanders, he is ready to provide a performance in which he takes centre stage.

"At Flanders, I was at the start with hope and thought that it might be possible but I knew that in order to get a result in Flanders you need to be at 100 per cent and I was far from that. I was just hoping but I said in the radio quite early that I would try and help the team by getting into early moves. Due to the race circumstances the race was always fast and it meant I couldn't do anything," Gilbert said. 

"It was frustrating and I don't like to follow the race. I want to be an actor and last Sunday I had nothing. I don't remember feeling that bad in a race like that."

Whether the abandon at Flanders helps Gilbert in Paris-Roubaix is still unclear. One could rightly argue that the rest would improve his health and that the fact he didn't feature in the finale might mean opposition riders hesitate if he makes an early move.

"That's hard to say because although I trained this week I didn't want to go too deep because I was scared of getting sick," he countered.

"We still have a few days and what I've seen is that there's no one above the others. It's quite open again so I expect quite a tactical race. Hopefully, we can have the right tactics and have the numbers. I hope that everyone is good.

"What we've seen is that every winner so far has had a good team around him. With EF in Flanders, they had three riders at the front. We also had three riders but were second. In Milan-San Remo we did a really big job with five or six guys in the finale. Having numbers is key."

Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo are the only two Monuments missing from Gilbert's trophy cabinet, and while the Italian one-day race has been and gone, this Sunday provides one of the last chances Gilbert has to make history. With such a successful career behind him, the former world champion can race without excessive pressure but the question over age and how many Roubaix appearances he has left is never far from view.

The honest answer is that Gilbert, like every rider to a degree, has a chance of winning Roubaix until the day he decides to stop. Recent wins for Mat Hayman and Greg Van Avermaet prove that it can take many attempts before victory can be seized.

"I'm happy because I won some races before coming here. That was my goal to win as many different races in my career. In my eyes that was important but now it's about trying for this. It's a bit like how Alejandro Valverde is riding in Flanders. We have the same sort of goals," Gilbert added.

"I don't think that time is running out. If you look at some of the winners of Paris-Roubaix sometimes they're quite old. You can see that explosiveness is not as important as endurance in this type of race. With age you get more of an old diesel motor, you don't get tired and you don't break."

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