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Gilbert carrying the weight of Belgian expectations

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma Lotto) goes on the attack.

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma Lotto) goes on the attack. (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

For the first time in history the Belgian public haven't witnessed a win from one of their compatriots during the five first spring classics races on home soil. As for the Omega Pharma-Lotto team, it has been had a lacklustre season as well, with no wins yet in 2010.

The team entered last weekend's racing with some riders suffering from a virus and the team was forced to line up with only six riders at the E3-Prijs Harelbeke, which is considered to be the final rehearsal ahead of the Tour of Flanders. During that race only Greg Van Avermaet managed to get in the picture but in the finale the team was nowhere to be seen.

Luckily for the Belgian team there's Philippe Gilbert, who's gained a lot of confidence during the end of last season when he won a series of high-profile races. During Gent-Wevelgem, Gilbert showed that the team can remain confident and count on him for the Ronde. Gilbert finished third and another positive note was the presence of teammate Jurgen Roelandts in the lead group of six riders; the former Belgian champion was a great support for Gilbert. Roelandts was pleased with his performance and confirmed the team had been slightly panicking coming into this race.

"Of course we didn't win but that was very hard against Bernhard (Eisel). I believed in my chances for the sprint but when we started he immediately made the difference. I didn't come back on him and Vanmarcke, I was dead," Gilbert admitted. Sixty kilometres before that during right after the first ascent of the Kemmelberg, considered to be one of the toughest climbs in Flanders, the race was set on fire by the Liquigas team. Gilbert and Roelandts ended up chasing in a second echelon.

"After descending the Kemmelberg I lost position and when we turned into the crosswinds we were surprised by the acceleration. The peloton was on a long line and it broke a few spots ahead of me. It took time to organize the chase. We had to work hard to get back to the front," Gilbert said.

For more than ten kilometres the gap was about half a minute but on the Mont des Cats, Gilbert joined Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) in a counter-attack. Surprisingly the Belgian was unable to keep the Italian's wheel. "He hit that climb and he was going really fast. I lost contact but luckily I managed to bridge up later, but after that I was really tired. Surprisingly Gasparotto wasn't present in the decisive breakaway so he probably dug too deep back then. You always have to save something for later," Gilbert added a´by way of a tip.

Together with Roelandts the Belgian team had two fast riders up front but they were no match for Columbia-HTC's Eisel. "I wasn't super strong today and I knew that the finish didn't suit me, since it's not false flat or uphill. I told Jurgen that I would work for him but he told me that he wasn't feeling good enough, so he tried to set me up for the sprint. Of course we were all at our limit after such a race." Gilbert said.

In the sprint Gilbert was on Eisel's wheel but eventually he didn't get any closer to the Austrian and even his young compatriot Sep Vanmarcke passed him. "Sep rode a great race. Physically I knew who he was but actually I didn't know his name. We rode together in the Tour of Qatar and I often tried to read his name from his frame plate but that didn't succeed," Gilbert laughed while confirming that now he knew who Vanmarcke was.

Though Eisel was a well-deserved winner the strongest man in the race was Saxo Bank's Matti Breschel. The Danish champion dropped Gilbert and the others during the second ascent of the Kemmelberg but punctured out of the lead group later on. "We had all the trouble keeping up with him and then he asked us for support but I don't think he realized how strong he was," Gilbert said.

Together with Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Juan Antonio Flecha and Filippo Pozzato, the Dane is a top favourite for the Tour of Flanders. Thanks to the convincing performance from Gilbert and Roelandts, the Omega Pharma-Lotto team will be more confident to fight against these men during the Tour of Flanders next week. But like Gilbert said, "a lot can change in a week."

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