A rainbow jersey notwithstanding, Philippe Gilbert has endured a trying two seasons since signing for BMC and the Belgian has said that he would consider retirement if he felt he could not return to winning ways at the spring Classics.
Gilbert has captured just four victories since signing for BMC: the 2012 world championships and three stage wins at the Vuelta a España, but has struggled on his favoured terrain at the Ardennes classics, with a battling third place at the 2012 Flèche Wallonne his best showing in the past two years.
“Even if I was world champion in 2012 I was not at my best level, especially last year,” Gilbert told reporters at BMC’s media day in Denia, Spain on Tuesday. “After two years like this, it’s hard because you think 'Am I too old already?’ or ‘Do I have something?’ But I can feel now I am back and motivated.”
Gilbert’s struggles at BMC have been all the more puzzling given his startling run of success during his final year at Omega Pharma-Lotto in 2011, when he captured a famous hat-trick of victories in the Ardennes classics, as well as the Belgian title, the opening stage of the Tour de France and the Clasica San Sebastian.
All told, Gilbert picked up 18 wins in 2011, a year when it seemed he could simply do no wrong. By contrast, the spark of that season was clearly missing in 2013, when he laboured to fifth at Amstel Gold Race and seventh at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“You don’t enjoy it so much when you only race at that level,” Gilbert said. “I was always there in the final but I knew I was not going to win, [I knew] that it was going to be fifth or seventh like in the Ardennes. I was there but I would stop cycling if it was to do a top five only. I have more motivation than doing that. When I see I’m not able to win anymore, I will stop.”
The first target of 2014
Gilbert is set to start his season at the Tour of Qatar next month, and he believes that he has a more solid winter of training behind him than he did in 2012 or 2013. “I’ve worked hard, I’ve been really focused on what I did and I didn’t lose time on superficial things like ceremonies,” he said.
“It’s important to focus on training and the rest, and then it (fitness) comes by itself. Last season was not good and I was also disappointed with my season and my performance. I just wanted to forget this and go for a new successful season.”
The new season also sees changes in the management of the BMC team. John Lelangue and team parted company after last year’s Tour de France, and he has been replaced as manager by Allan Peiper, while Valerio Piva is a new arrival from Katusha as sport director.
“It’s like a new team. It’s almost like I’ve signed with a different team,” Gilbert said. “Everybody is excited, especially after the nice start from Cadel [Evans] at the Tour Down Under. That gives extra motivation, when it starts well [for the team], you also want to do well.”
Gilbert’s first target of 2014 will be Milan-San Remo, which features a new and more difficult finale, but he will then eschew the cobbled classics in order to build towards the Ardennes. The Belgian will take two weeks away from racing after Milan-San Remo, and then race the Tour of the Basque Country to fine-tune his form.
“After San Remo, I have two weeks of training. I need to go really hard in training and focus on the quality of training and rest, instead of travelling to races,” he said. “When you are racing, you need to take a day off before and after the race just to help the team. I prefer to train.”
Gilbert confirmed, too, that he is unlikely to ride the Tour de France in 2014, preferring instead to line up at the Vuelta a España in preparation for the world championships in Ponferrada.
“I hope not,” Gilbert laughed, when asked if he was on the long-list for BMC’s Tour team. “I give my place with pleasure. I can watch on TV also.”
Gilbert believes that the Worlds parcours in Ponferrada is suited to a wide spread of riders, and he believes that will ultimately be of benefit to him. “I think it’s always good for me when the sprinters and climbers can both say they have a chance,” he said. “The level is higher and it’s easier if you’re strong because more people are working in the final.”