A simple nod from Philippe Gilbert as he passed under the flamme rouge during the opening stage of the 2011 Tour de France let Jurgen Van den Broeck know that his final turn was done. It was the final play in an emphatic Omega Pharma-Lotto team performance that put Gilbert in pole position for the stage victory.
Alexandre Vinokourov was the first to play his card in the final kilometre before another attack from Fabian Cancellara with 500 metres to go looked to be the decisive move, stringing out the lead group. Gilbert quickly bridged over to Cancellara, before accelerating a second time, and crossed the line alone a few hundred metres later, resplendent in his Belgian national champion's jersey. The victory awarded Gilbert a single day in the Tour de France yellow jersey before the team time trial the next day. But, it's a day on which the Belgian veteran looks back fondly when reminded of it at his Quick-Step Floors team's pre-race Tour press conference on Thursday.
"It was a perfect finish for me. We had a good team there, and I knew everyone on it would work for me," Gilbert smiled. "I just had to focus on the finish, because I knew they would do everything for me in support, and that they'd make my life easy. It was the whole team working together to get me into a winning position at the finish, and it's nice to remember that stage again.
"When you see riders like André Greipel or Jurgen Roelandts giving 100 per cent, you tell yourself that you can't lose because they've sacrificed themselves for you. When you have riders of that level working for you, it gives you a bit more power."
The finish of that 2011 opening stage, in Mont des Alouettes, is only around 50 kilometres away from this year's Grand Départ, and Gilbert's fond memories are enhanced by being back on the kind of terrain that the one-day specialist thrives on.
"It's a good place to race; you can almost compare it to Flanders," Gilbert says of the Vendée. "It's quite open, always windy, always raining, so it's quite similar. Let's hope to see some action here from day one."
Quick-Step Floors arrive at the 2018 Tour de France with an array of talent, and each of their eight riders are capable of taking a stage victory. However, after the team's five stage victories at the Tour last year, courtesy of Marcel Kittel – who has now moved on to Katusha-Alpecin – the team's hopes of getting close to, or matching, that impressive tally must begin with Fernando Gaviria taking one of the early sprinters' stages.
"First, we're going to try with Fernando. It's clear that he's one of the best sprinters in the world, and he showed last week that he's in good shape," agreed Gilbert, pointing to the three second places from the Colombian sprinter at the Tour de Suisse.
"We'll all be riding for him, and if he wins either of the two first stages, he could be in the yellow jersey. After that, we'll have to see how many seconds we win or lose in the team time trial on stage 3. The team time trial is always decisive at the Tour."
Multiple stage opportunities in the opening week for Quick-Step Floors' riders could see the team getting close to last year's dominant tally, but after a disappointing second half to the race in 2017, Gilbert is hoping to transfer any early success into the second week this time out, and Bob Jungels' Tour de France debut could provide the Belgian team with the added motivation they need.
"Last year we started without a clear goal, but managed to win five stages in the first 10 days," said Gilbert. "But then it was just a disaster for us, going from those 10 days of success to nothing in the last 10 days. But anything, and everything, can happen at the Tour. Every day is different.
"I think Bob is having a good year. He had some good results at the Giro d'Italia, but it's a big step up from the Giro to the Tour. It's a different style of racing. The Giro is more technical, and if you have good technique on the bike, you can get some great results. But I think that the Tour is more about power. You have to be a bulldozer."
A couple of stages in the opening nine days of the Tour look specifically suited to Gilbert, as well as a number of his very capable teammates. But, after targeting Paris-Roubaix earlier in the season, where Gilbert finished 15th, the Tour's ninth stage across the cobbles could be a chance for the former world champion to claim his first Tour stage win in seven years.
"I'll take it day by day and see if any opportunities arise," Gilbert said. "We'll see what happens, without really targeting any particular stage. I'm here to work for the team, but also to take any opportunities that come my way.
"It's hard to say when that could happen. The Roubaix stage might be a big stage for us if it's raining, but we'll only know if that's going to happen perhaps the day before, or on the day itself, so it's hard to talk about how things might go 10 days in advance. But it's a really short stage. It's not that hard: it's got cobbles, but it isn't Paris-Roubaix."
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