At the Tour of Oman, Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team) has stood out more for his rainbow jersey than for his results but he has dismissed off any doubts about his form and is convinced he will be a contender in the spring Classics, from Milan-San Remo until Liège-Bastogne- Liège.
Gilbert is always polite and professional, but he is more protective of his time and privacy after the scrutiny and thousands of questions, especially in Belgium, about his difficult 2012 season. He answers further questions about last year but they clearly touch a nerve.
"There's been a lot of talk about my spring season last year but it's only three months in a career of ten years. I have nothing to complain about," Gilbert said, firing a warning shot while speaking to the media, including Cyclingnews, at the Tour of Oman.
"I was there in the finale in almost every classic but everyone said things were very bad. But bad is when you get dropped and climb off in races. I was not that bad and got better week after week. Eventually my best form came back."
Gilbert concedes that his hugely successful 2011 season left him tired for 2012. Poor results in 2012 were the price he paid for his long run of victories in 2011, although he recovered his powers sufficiently to win the world championships in Valkenburg in September.
"Maybe in life you only have one big season and perhaps it was 2011 for me," he said.
"But it was also long season: I did all the classics, rode the Tour de France and went for the green jersey, I was at full gas everyday but then I never rested afterwards because I won the WorldTour. After the Tour de France I targeted San Sebastian, the Eneco Tour, the Canadian races and the Worlds. I think it was too much for one person and I needed a few months to recover from it."
To avoid the constant scrutiny of 2012 and avoid having to chase his fitness, Gilbert started his season at the Tour Down Under. Stage races are key building blocks as he prepares for the Classics.
"My form's not bad for the moment. I'm not good enough to win, but I'm not unfit. I had a good winter and I'm riding some stage races like Tour Down Under, now Oman and then Paris-Nice, to get better and better every week.
"I feel ready and on track. The intention is to be at my best for the classics. The season is becoming longer and longer in cycling, but it's difficult if you have to chase your form. Last season I was in that position and never managed to catch up."
Goal for 2013: Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders
Gilbert is one of few riders who has the ability and characteristics to win on the cobbles of the Tour of Flanders and the steep climbs of the Ardennes.
He will target every classic except Paris-Roubaix but has set himself a special goal.
"It'd be special to win one of the classics I've still to win: Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders," he said.
"My classics campaign is very long but I think you can win 'La Primavera' even if you're not at your best. Everything depends on the wind. With a tailwind (on the late Capi climbs) you have a far better chance. When a headwind becomes a factor, then everyone just stays on the wheels."
Gilbert is not worried or interested by possible rivals such as Mark Cavendish or Peter Sagan, who was far better than the Belgian in Oman and won two stages before pulling out with a sore throat.
"There are twenty riders who can win Sanremo. It's not a good idea to focus on what he (Cavendish) has to say," he said.
"I worry about myself. What counts is the shape of your rivals in the week before a big race. I don’t care if Sagan is stronger than me at the moment. If he's still stronger than me at Flèche Brabançonne (on April 10, just before the Ardennes week) then I have a problem. But that will not be the case."
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