Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) barely had time to reflect on his Tour of Flanders victory when questions about his future were already being asked. Gilbert's Flanders win puts him among an illustrious group of riders who have taken titles at three separate Monuments. The result also keeps his hopes of winning all five alive, with Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix remaining.
Winning all five would put him in a very exclusive group that contains just three - Eddy Merckx, Roger de Vlaeminck and Rik Van Looy.
"It's always been a dream. I have been speaking about this for a long time now," Gilbert told the media in his post-race press conference. "I was third here twice before and twice third in San Remo, and finally I won here in Flanders so I can cross that one off. It's done. I still have two to make, Roubaix and San Remo. The good news is that it's not my last year, so I still have a chance in the future."
He might be a Walloon, but Gilbert's victory was immensely popular in Flanders, and the new De Ronde champion was still doing the media rounds several hours after he lifted his bike aloft on the finish line. Even his most ardent of fans would have been astounded by his long-range attack for victory.
A surge of power saw Gilbert break free of the bunch on the Kwaremont with more than 50 kilometres remaining, holding off the chasers by 29 seconds in the end. It was an all-or-nothing move that could have left Gilbert empty handed, and had Sagan and Van Avermaet not come down in a crash the story could have been a very different one. He admitted afterwards that he hadn't intended on breaking away at that point and had only wanted to put the pressure on.
"Myself also," he responded when told that people thought he'd been crazy to attack when he did. "We decided, with Trentin and Boonen, to speed up on the Kwaremont. Tom went full gas, even on the asphalt before the cobbles. He really did a big pull on the first part, and then I took over. I shifted to the big chainring when it was a bit flatter and then after this little chicane in the village, I was looking back, and I saw that I had a gap.
"I didn't know what to do so I stayed on my speed, and at the end of the cobbles I looked back and I saw them pretty far back. I asked, 'What should I do?' and they said 'just go'. I went, but it was a long way. I was trying to go fast but not too crazy because I knew that it was a long effort to deal with it. I was trying really hard because I knew that the last 10 or 15km would be really hard. I was scared of having a hunger flat or something like that. I knew that from this moment that I wouldn't have time to eat much."
Quick-Step Floors have often been criticised for tactics at races, losing out despite having an obvious numbers advantage. However, this spring the team have been much more cohesive, which has shown with their success at Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Three days of De Panne. The Belgian outfit played it perfectly at the Tour of Flanders, getting two riders onto the podium, and Gilbert was effusive in his praise of his teammates.
"It's a win for the whole team. I'm aware of that because I heard over the radio that everybody was working behind me and I'm really thankful for that. They did a lot of work, and I know without them that I wouldn't be able to win," he said. "Cycling is a team sport. It's not an individual sport. It's maybe the only sport where only one person has the success, but in the end, we won as a team. Everyone deserved to be on the podium as a team.
"Everyone was really strong today, and when they're on the Kwaremont it could have been another guy from the team and we would have played the same tactic because that's what we say, everybody deserves his chance and the protection of the team if he is in front."
There will be plenty of celebration at the team's hotel in Antwerp this evening, but Gilbert will need clear heads when he decides whether to continue his run on the cobbles and ride Paris-Roubaix next weekend.
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