Philippe Gilbert may be 33 years of age and boast a mightily impressive palmares, but he says that still feels youthful and has much more he wants to achieve before hanging up his wheels.
"I don't even know when I'm going to stop," he says, talking to media at BMC's training camp in Spain on Thursday. "Look at [Davide] Rebellin, he's like 44 – imagine!"
Gilbert also looks to Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, fellow giants of the Classics who are set to retire next year, and notes: "They had success really quickly, [but] I had to wait like a few years to get to the top level. I guess they had a lot of pressure in their lives, also they won a lot more of the big races, so you then have a different view of your sport. So, for me, I feel like I'm only starting now."
Gilbert does himself a disservice; he has won the World Championships, the Giro di Lombardia, stages in all three Grand Tours, and each of the Ardennes Classics – notably all three in the same glittering spring of 2011. However, he identifies Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix as absent from his palmares.
"I turn 34 next year, so it's time," he says. "I don't know [if it will be next year]. Roubaix I don't do, for sure. Flanders I don't know yet."
Part of the problem can be put down to tension with Greg Van Avermaet, who has finished on the podium there in the past two years and is rumoured to be less than keen of the idea of having Gilbert on the team for the cobbles. What is certain is that he'll start his season at the Dubai Tour, before doing the Clásica de Almería, the Vuelta a Murcia, the Ruta del Sol, then Het Nieuwsblad, Paris-Nice, and Milan-San Remo, all before another shot at the Ardennes.
Despite the eagerness to tread new ground and score more success before his career is over, Gilbert concedes that in this day and age it is harder than ever to win a big Classic.
"Now you see every team is very complete with lots of riders ready for the Classics, so it's harder and harder," he says, "If you take a picture of the bunch 20km to go in Flanders, Liege or Lombardia, you have at least two teams with five guys. In the past you maybe had two three guys max from one team.
"When you go and you have three or four guys chasing you it's hard to beat them, unless it's raining or very technical. But if the weather's nice or there's a headwind, it's almost impossible."
The Olympics are bigger than anything
In terms of one-day races, there is one that doesn't take place in the spring that would equal Flanders and Roubaix in terms of stature for Gilbert. The Olympic Games come round once every four years and invariably features high up the priority lists of a majority of riders.
For Gilbert, who finished 19th at London 2012, they take on a very special importance.
"The Olympics are bigger than anything, " he says. "When you say to people who don't know cycling that you won Liege, they ask you if it's a race – they don't know what it is. If you say you've won a stage in the Tour they start to be interested, the World Championships also, but they don't know the rules – if it's a ranking or a one-day race.
"But with the Olympics, if you get a medal there everyone knows what it is and the importance [of it]. The impact is very different, especially for a country like Belgium – we never have any success there, maybe a medal like once every 10 years. Even to have a bronze medal is really big."
Yet Gilbert is not yet sure if he'll be going to Rio. That will depend on what the Belgian national coach makes of the course when he goes out to recce it. On paper, it's a particularly hilly affair and likely to be highly selective. Gilbert, who admitted he could ride the Tour de France or the newly-moved Tour de Pologne in July as preparation, said that he isn't reading too much into the profile, and is happy to leave his fate in the hands of his coach.
"I haven't yet had contact with the national coach, we'll see when he contacts me if the course suits me or not," he said. "We'll see which kind of riders he'll want there. It's normal, it's still far away. I saw some graphics, and you have a kind of idea, but it's always different. It's a one-day race, you race it differently."
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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