Philippe Gilbert's tub-thumping return to the cobbled Classics continued with a show of force on the opening day of the Three days of De Panne. It's not one of the most prestigious of the spring calendar, but Gilbert used it to show – to anyone who might be in doubt – that he won't be turning up in Antwerp this Sunday just to be an also-ran.
Gilbert's recent run has seen him finish second at Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke last week. However, he says that it will all count for nought if he doesn't deliver the goods this weekend at Tour of Flanders.
"This is not really important. Only Sunday counts," Gilbert said after his stage 1 victory.
"The number one priority is having the physical condition. After that you need the mentality to go with it, the necessary aggression to fight for your position, to make the efforts – very short but very intense efforts. You have to be willing to hurt yourself. After that, you need a team, and they were so strong again today. I have to thank Dries [Devenyns] because I think without him the victory wouldn't have happened today, or at least things would have played out differently.”
Gilbert did a lot of his own heavy lifting too, putting in stinging attacks on both ascents of the Muur van Geraardsbergen. The first saw him drop most of those who might be able to out-kick him in a sprint. However, he still had an in-form Luke Durbridge on his tail, so another assault on the Muur was needed.
"I knew I had to drop him on the Muur because after that it wouldn't be easy to get rid of anyone as it was quite a bit easier, with a tailwind on the remaining false flats and climbs, so I knew I had to make the difference there," said Gilbert. "It was still a long way to the finish, a dozen or so kilometres, but I tried to manage my effort, accelerate when it was necessary, and I was able to maintain the gap. But I knew that against a time trial specialist it wasn’t a forgone conclusion, so I gave it everything."
Gilbert put 17 seconds into Durbridge, and with bonus seconds counted, he currently leads the overall standings at the Three Days of De Panne by 22 seconds over the Australian.
Return to the Ronde
Gilbert has past form at the Tour of Flanders after taking to the podium in 2009 and 2010. However, he's not raced the Belgian monument since the 2012 season, after time-sharing the Classics with former teammate Greg Van Avermaet. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and after five long years, Gilbert has been like a kid in a sweet shop at the Classics as he avails himself of every opportunity that comes forward.
"I didn't have much choice in the past. I regret those years and those choices, but now I'm happy to be here," said Gilbert. "Up to now it's been a nice adventure, and now it's nice to win, on a personal level, because it's always a satisfaction."
The call up to the pavé and the thought of returning to Flanders appears to have given Gilbert a new hunger for racing. This is not the case, says Gilbert, his desire to race is as strong as it always has been.
"I'm always motivated. Even after 15 years pro I'm still feeling in love with sport, so nothing has changed," explained Gilbert. "This has always been a motivation for me. I wasn't always allowed to do in the past, but now I'm happy to be at the start."