If Philippe Gilbert (BMC) celebrated Sunday’s Vuelta a España stage win with even more enthusiasm than usual, then it was understandable. After taking 18 wins in the 2011 season, Gilbert’s victory was his first since the GP Wallonie on September 14th, 2011.
“It’s already been almost a whole year since I won, so I’m really pleased to win for BMC, this is very special,” Gilbert said with a huge grin afterwards. “I’ve very happy as it’s been a long time since my last win.
“It’s been a hard season for me, I was fighting to get a good shape, I never stopped believing in myself and had a lot of support from my family and friends. Last year has maybe been the hardest moment of my career and it’s in those moments when you need that support.
“I’ve had a lot of criticism from the Belgian press, I never answered it except by fighting on my bike and this stage of the Vuelta was an opportunity with a perfect finish.”
Gilbert took the win by outsprinting red jersey Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) after they had escaped on the climb of Montjuic in the finale. “It was a hard stage because the GC guys were fighting for the seconds [time bonuses], and the overall classification is still very close,” Gilbert said.
“The plan was for [teammate] Alessandro Ballan to go for it and for me to finish off his good work, but when ‘Purito’ [Rodriguez] attacked I knew it was the perfect plan for me to go with him. He’s maybe the best climber out there on those kinds of ascents, but I knew I was faster than him in the sprints.
“We never braked on those descents, so we were going full gas all the way, and it worked out perfectly.”
Could this finish be similar to the Cauberg, which will feature in September’s world championships in Valkenburg? Certainly, Gilbert will be hoping it is not like the 1973 Worlds, held at Montjuic and where the first Belgian was Freddy Maertens, who finished second behind Felice Gimondi.
“I think it’s completely different, but it’ll give me a lot of confidence and pressure for the Worlds. I will go there as a favourite, and now I will go there with the best legs I have.”
Gilbert then dodged the rather loaded question about whether it changed his status within the Belgian team for the Worlds. “We also have a strong team, a lot of motivated riders, first we have to get the core of the team together and then I will finish the Vuelta and maybe take a second victory.
“There’s still a long way to go to the Worlds. In the Olympics I was good, I’m a one-day race specialist, and normally when I focus on one day, I’m there.
“The coach and other riders know that, but they also know that from looking at things in the past, it’s not good to go with one guy, it’s easier to have more than one guy in the final. I remember when Evans won [in Varese in 2009], there were three Spanish guys with Rodriguez [bronze medallist], Samuel Sanchez and Alejandro Valverde. They didn’t win but it was easier for them.”
The million-dollar question, though, was why Gilbert had had such a bad season up to now after such a good 2011. To his credit, he met the question head on.
“I had a very hard season in 2011, racing a lot and winning a lot takes a lot of energy,” he explained. “I’m just human, I’m maybe paying a lot for it this season. After the Tour last year I normally would have had a break, instead, I refocused on the Worlds, and did Eneco, San Sebastian and so on.
“I never stopped and maybe I have paid for it this year. Last year was my year and maybe I was paying for this because I was over my limit.”
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.