Gilbert points to Molenberg as key climb in new Omloop het Nieuwsblad course

"Time flies…time flies." Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) wondered where a decade had gone as he looked ahead to Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

The race holds a special place in the Belgian's heart as his first Classics victory, way back in 2006. He won it again in 2008 and, after his spectacular re-emergence as a cobbled Classics rider last year, he has the chance to take a record-tying third on Saturday. 

Since then, Gilbert has built a mighty palmarès, with two titles at Il Lombardia and one each at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Flanders, to mention just the Monuments. It also contains Amstel Gold Race times four, La Flèche Wallonne, Paris-Tours and, of course, the World Championships.

It's the missing Monuments that Gilbert now covets most; Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix are needed for the complete set. Given they are still a few weeks down the line, he was cautious when asked about his Omloop chances at Quick-Step Floors' pre-race press conference on Friday.

"Back then it was different, I knew I had little chance of winning Flanders or a big classic so I tried to advance my form because it was more realistic to win a race of 200km than a race of 260km," he said, referring to his past victories.

"Now things have changed. I've had to learn to hold off on my form a bit over the last years and put more of an accent on the later races.

"It's an important race but at the same time, you cannot be in top shape now because it's still a long way for the big goals. You still have to improve. You have to be good but not too good, so it's always a delicate one to balance."

As such, Gilbert was keen to play down any talk of a record-tying third title and any billing of the race as a battle between him and his old teammate and rumoured foe Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), who has won the past two editions.

"It's really important if I do it, but I'm not chasing it," said Gilbert. "I try to win every time I come here and it's only happened twice but if it a third comes I'll be very happy.

"If it happens, it'll happen naturally. It's not the objective; the objective is to win the race. After that, if it's the third time, that's great, but you don't think about that at the start."

'It's the first race in Belgium, it's always important'

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne form what's known as the 'opening weekend' in Belgium – for many the true start of the season after early cobweb-shaking in warmer climes.

In Belgium the excitement grows as the weekend draws nearer, with anticipation stoked by newspaper pull-outs and extensive media coverage, culminating in big crowds in Gent for the start of the Omloop on what's always a cold Saturday morning.

"It's the first race in Belgium, it's always important. As we all know Belgium Is maybe the country with the biggest cycling history," said Gilbert, sharing the excitement.

"Also, this is the kind of racing we like to see. It's nice to be back on this kind of racing because something always happens – it's so unpredictable. If you ask me about scenarios for tomorrow, it's impossible to answer. Every year we plan something and something different happens. That's why we like this kind of race."

The complexion of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad looks even harder to predict this year, given the changes to the route. Having started and finished in Gent for 10 years, this year sees the revival of the old Tour of Flanders finale, with the legendary Muur van Geraardsbergen climb followed by the Bosberg before a 12km run-in to the finish in Meerbeke.

"I like it. It's nice to be back on this course, it's something different," said Gilbert.

"It's not easy to compare it to the old Flanders. It's different. It's 60km longer. We all know that when you go above 200km it makes a lot of difference. It's also earlier in season, so it's hard to compare."

While everyone's talking about Muur-Bosberg, Gilbert pointed to a less obvious focal point – the Molenberg, which comes with just over 50km out, the seventh of 13 climbs on the 195km route.

"Molenberg is like very small roads, and it always splits there because there's no space, then it goes up, then it's false flat, and you never come back because everyone stays in their position," said Gilbert.

"You're 10 metres behind and you cannot close those 10 metres. On TV maybe it doesn't look like this, but it's a really hard part. Ten metres isn't a huge gap, but when you get on the big roads it becomes 100m, then 20 seconds, then ciao, see you next year."

At the press conference, Gilbert was sat alongside the full Quick-Step line-up, including Fernando Gaviria, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert.

The Belgian team perennially boast the strongest line-ups at the Classics, and Gilbert preached the familiar message that they'll go into the race with open minds

"It's of course a strong team, with a lot of experience. It's always an advantage when you start with a strong team because you can always fight for the win in any situation. As always we have to adapt our way, to act on the bike depending on race situation."

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Patrick Fletcher
Deputy Editor

Deputy Editor. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2022 he has been Deputy Editor, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.