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Gilbert leads BMC’s charge for first Monument win

Philippe Gilbert (BMC) has been here so many times it's no wonder that the answers seem to reel off the tongue with relative ease as he and teammate Taylor Phinney address the media ahead of E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem.

Phinney, hot off the back of an impressive performance at Milan-San Remo, is well versed with the press too, greeting individual journalists as they enter the room, before admitting that he will play a "wildcard" role for the upcoming races. With Paris-Roubaix the main focus of his spring, the demand is that he proves Milan-San Remo was no fluke if he is to garner a leadership role at BMC, a team that has often cared more for status and reputation than present day form.

For Gilbert there are the inevitable questions over form, Tom Boonen's fitness, and his recent quotes on the Belgian national flag.

The three-time Monument winner heads into the double header of E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem with a firm focus on next week's Tour of Flanders and is using Friday's E3 as a final dress rehearsal.

"Tomorrow's race is maybe more important for me than Gent-Wevelgem because it's mostly on the same roads of Flanders. It's maybe the last test we can do. For me it will be important just to get in one last race of long distance," Gilbert said at BMC's pre-race press conference in Kortrijk.

Exactly a year ago, an uncomfortable Gilbert was holding court in the same room. Sick, without form, he sat shifting in his seat as Thor Hushovd - also sick, and George Hincapie talked about the team's Classics aims. Given their poor showing and how Alessandro Ballan saved the team's bacon with a string of crucial performances, Gilbert was pleased to simply be back to somewhere near his top form.

"My form is much better," Gilbert said when asked to compare his current condition to that of last spring. Last year I was just able to follow for 150 kilometres in races and after that I was completely empty," he said. It took until the Vuelta before he found his groove, picking up two stage wins before his triumph at the Worlds in Holland.

"This year I hope to be in the finals of races. I don't know if I can go with the best but I hope to be there and then we'll see. I've never had a good feeling on these races. I think I was seventh in Harelbeke once and on the podium once in Gent. I don't know why but I've never been good."

Asked how far he is from his top form, the Belgian replies modestly, "It's hard to say. I'm not so bad but I'm not that good either."

A mild cold has perhaps been his biggest concern. Although no symptoms of a fever have appeared, Gilbert has not been 100 per cent healthy in recent weeks either.

"I've had a cold since before Paris-Nice. When I'm on the bike for a more than a couple of hours it's okay, everything is open and I can breathe normally. It's not a big problem but when I speak you can hear that I have a cold."

The press conference spills over as one journalist asks about Phinney about the colour of his shoes, another about arms strength needed for Paris-Roubaix and Flanders before it finally comes back to the main question: Can BMC, after all their star signings and effort finally win a spring Classics?

"It's a big goal for the team and we've tried in the past. We've had some nice podiums but we've missed the big victory. It will come though."

"Flanders is a very race and I miss it in palmares. If I win it once day it could change a lot. Every year I'm motivated to win it, but I need to play with my condition. I can't be 100 per cent in Flanders and in Liege so I have to make a little choice. We'll see. I'd like to win all of the Classics at some point, that's nothing new. I've tried for a few years."

If BMC are going to end their drought it could all depend on Gilbert and the team's wildcard, of course.

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