Philippe Gilbert and Tim Wellens have both come out in support for the UCI’s controversial ban on the super-tuck and ‘forearms-on-bars’ positions, as the Lotto Soudal pair look ahead with confidence to the Opening Weekend.
Gilbert was one of two rider representatives at the winter meetings that led to the new package of safety measures, along with Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates), who recently revealed only 16 out of 800 riders downloaded the information sent to them.
Speaking to the press ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Gilbert echoed the Italian’s frustration that so many riders complained about the new measures without having participated in the discussions.
"It’s always funny to see the reaction from the riders. It’s open to everyone to enter these meetings and I would like to welcome more riders doing like myself: spending time and energy on that. I think it would be more efficient than saying things on social media. If we walk in the right order, we’re going to be more successful and strong as a group," he said.
"I would like to invite riders to be more part of meetings, or maybe just open their emails, read their emails, understand their emails. If something is not clear, they can still call the CPA or the UCI. It’s easy, you get your computer, you type UCI or CPA into Google, and you find the contacts. It’s really easy for anyone. It’s not so hard to get in contact with anyone if you need to.”
Speaking specifically about the super-tuck, whereby riders sit on their top tubes and press their chests into their handlebars, Gilbert, who’d acted on behalf of the peloton in the meetings, expressed personal support for the measure on Friday.
"I think a bike is not made for that – that’s the first thing. If someone put a saddle on the bike, it’s for a reason,” he said.
“Of course, it’s a really efficient position and that’s why a lot of people use it. I have more of a problem when riders use it in the bunch or in front of the bunch. If you crash alone, no one cares – it’s your own fault and responsibility – but if you crash in front of the group or in the middle of the group, and you cause maybe 10, 20, 30, or 40 others to crash, then I have a problem with that. Only for that reason, that rule is good.”
Gilbert was speaking alongside his fellow Classics leader Wellens, who was also asked about the matter given his penchant for draping his forearms over his handlebars – a position that will also be banned from April.
In fact, the Belgian extensively used the aerodynamic position as he soloed to victory on stage 3 of the recent Étoile de Bessèges.
“I understand the decision. For me, it’s not an advantage because I like to ride in this position, I can ride well in the position, and I do it a lot in training, but I can understand why they’ve done it, why it’s less safe to ride like that, so I’m behind the decision,” Wellens said.
“I know we have young guys looking up to us. If they try to do the same in traffic and they crash, then it’s a little bit our fault. I don’t see a problem in the new rules. In the wind tunnel yesterday I simulated a few things and for sure it’s more advantageous to ride like this but it’ll be the same for everyone so I don’t have a problem with it.”
Gilbert and Wellens also spoke about their ambitions for this weekend, with both lining up at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday and Wellens doubling up with Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday.
While Gilbert is the one with the palmarès – he won Omloop in 2006 and has also won the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix – Wellens is the one with the form. His overally victory at the Étoile de Bessèges has marked him out as a favourite in the eyes of many.
“We’re in better position as a team than last year, we’ve seen from the first races that our riders are strong. We are on a good way and now we have to take advantage.
“We can start the race with big ambitions. I hope we can celebrate victory in the team – whether that’s with me or another rider.”
Gilbert hinted it would more than likely be the latter. Although he has made a better-than-anticipated recovery from the knee injury that derailed his 2020 season, he expects to be in race-winning shape later in the spring.
“My knee is getting better and better every week, the pain is less and less, which is good for the motivation. I’m on a good direction," said Gilbert.
“I know I’m here with a good base condition, which would allow me to generally finish in the top 10, but then to really play for the win, you need to really be at the top of your form, and that’s not the case for me. It also doesn’t need to be for now, but I’m on a good way to be fit for the big races next month.”
As for Wellens. He didn’t hide his confidence and put to bed any concerns over his health and fitness after he abandoned the recent Tour de la Provence.
“I feel tip-top,” Wellens said. “In Provence I stopped as a precaution because I didn’t feel 100 per cent and it was no use to finish the race for the sake of it so I preferred to abandon and prepare well for this weekend."
Although Wellens is still relatively inexperienced on the cobbles, having traditionally gravitated to the hillier Ardennes races, his early-season form has made him second favourite with most bookmakers, behind Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
“It’s true that I’ve prepared really well, I’ve felt good in training, and I’ve suffered like I needed to,” he said. “I’ve done all I wanted to so far, so I feel ready.”
Wellens may not have the same billing later this spring, when Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) enter the Classics equation, but he bristled when those two names came up.
“Now I have more chance to win, because if they’re at the start then I can’t win,” Wellens said, making sure to point out he was joking.
“There is a lot of talk about them. For sure they’re really good riders but the race always has to be ridden and it can go so many ways. It’s not that if Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel or Julian Alaphilippe are at the start, that the rest cannot win. Anything can happen. But for sure I don’t mind that they’re not at the start tomorrow.”
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