Gilbert chases form at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem

Philippe Gilbert will ride both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem this week in an attempt to build his form ahead of the Tour of Flanders. After a subdued start to his BMC career, Gilbert’s build-up to the Belgian classics was complicated when illness forced him to abandon Tirreno-Adriatico and a crash ended his Milan-San Remo challenge prematurely.

“It’s a change in my programme because although I’ve done all the races, I didn’t do the finale of the races,” Gilbert said in Kortrijk on Thursday. “I wasn’t able to ride the finales as I would have liked at Tirreno because of my illness and when you don’t ride the finishes, then it’s like you haven’t really done the race, so I need to ride a few tough finales to find great form.

“The best training is to do the last 10km of a race full on. You can’t do that in training. Even if you ride almost 200km in the first part of a race, you still need to be there for the finale to really improve. Besides, the weather is really good, so it shouldn’t be too tiring to ride both races.”

Gilbert insisted that he was fully recovered both from the illness and dental problems that so concerned the Belgian media in the run-up to Milan-San Remo, and from the crash at the top of the Cipressa that put paid to his hopes at La Classicissima.

“I think I was ready to do the final in San Remo. I was really good, and I’m now getting into good condition,” said Gilbert, although he admitted that it was hard to gauge his form given that he was not able to test himself against Fabian Cancellara et al on the Poggio: “I was feeling good on the Cipressa, but it was also slow so it’s difficult to say.”

Gilbert’s low-key start to the campaign has been placed under intense scrutiny by his home press, particularly given the year-long consistency that brought him 18 wins in 2011. A relaxed Gilbert told reporters on Thursday that while his condition was not as advanced as it was at this point twelve months ago, it may yet prove easier to manage his form over the course of the next month.

“I’m still searching for a really good level, so it’s not like last year when I was already very good and I was trying not to go too deep and to save some energy,” Gilbert said. “Now it’s the opposite, I’m still searching for the good shape, but when I have it, it will be strong in a few weeks.”

Gilbert has not been alone in his travails thus far in 2012: remarkably, his entire BMC team is yet to record a win this season, in spite of the veritable arsenal of talent at its disposal. However, he denied that the squad felt under any pressure to deliver victory this weekend in Belgium.

“We need to win but I don’t think it will come with pressure,” he said. “If we can try then we will, but pressure is never good.”

Cancellara and Pozzato

By contrast to Gilbert and BMC, Fabian Cancellara has been in blistering form in recent weeks. The Swiss rider laid down a significant marker by winning Strade Bianche in something of a procession and only the canny Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge) was able to prevent him from cruising to victory at Milan-San Remo.

“Like last year, he showed that he’s the number one favourite,” said Gilbert of Cancellara’s San Remo display. “Of course he didn’t drop the guys like at Harelbeke last year, but it’s hard to drop the guys on a final like that when it’s descent and flat. They still had problems following him, though, which means he’s very strong.”

The nature of Cancellara’s defeat last Saturday sparked furious debate over the rights and wrongs of sitting on the danger man’s wheel in order to win a classic. When pressed for his view, Gilbert couldn’t resist taking a swipe at his old rival Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia), who has shown significant signs of life in the past week.

“It’s never been my tactic to follow one guy. I know if I give Fabian five seconds it’s hard to bring him back, but I’m not the guy to be always behind. I will not race like this but of course if he attacks I have to follow. I’m not the guy like Pozzato, who is always behind one guy. I’m not this kind of rider.”

Gilbert will renew hostilities with Pozzato, Cancellara and a resurgent Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) at Harelbeke on Friday. All three men are past winners of the race, but for Gilbert, it will be the first participation since he finished 7th five years ago in the colours of FDJ.

“I don’t have a lot of experience here. I don’t know the circuit but I’ll follow the signs,” he joked.

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