It’s no secret that Philippe Gilbert wants to win Milan-San Remo more than any other race on the calendar. With victories in the four other Monuments already to his credit, the 38-year-old Belgian would join an extremely elite club if he were to add La Primavera to his palmarès, an achievement that would set him alongside illustrious compatriots Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Looy and Roger De Vlaeminck, the only three riders to win all five.
The chances of Gilbert joining this legendary trio seemed very distant when he fractured his knee cap in a crash on the opening day of the Tour de France last August. He returned to racing within weeks, only to be forced out of early October’s BinckBank Tour as a result of nagging pain in his knee.
Since then, the Lotto Soudal rider has been working steadily towards the spring Classics, and particularly San Remo. He was in good shape at the Étoile de Bessèges last month, when he played a significant role in teammate Tim Wellens’ overall victory, and came to Paris-Nice hoping for eight days of hard racing as his final preparation for San Remo.
The race didn’t initially unfold as he hoped. “Normally Paris-Nice is different to this year’s. In terms of stress, it’s not been that easy, but physically it’s not been too hard so far. Let’s hope that we’re going to have a hard race today because I think we all need it,” Gilbert said prior to stage four to Chiroubles. The Belgian veteran got his wish, the stage through the Beaujolais hills run at a high tempo from start to finish.
“You always get better when you ride hard. That goes for training and racing. I always like to go hard because it’s only way to become stronger and that wasn’t the case on the opening days. From this point on, even when I’m on my limit and getting dropped, I'll keep going as hard as I can because I need to make that kind of effort,” he said.
He was true to his word, finishing seven minutes down on stage winner Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), pushing himself hard all the way to the line, all the time hoping to gain a little more power to draw on when Milan-San Remo reaches its conclusion.
Gilbert admitted that he will have his eye on how his likely San Remo rivals are faring at Tirreno-Adriatico.
“We pretty much know their names,” he said, alluding to Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
“It’s always nice to watch them race. I like the way they ride, being aggressive. I’ve been riding like this for years and I like the fact they’re doing the same. It’s interesting for the public, for the sponsors, for the race itself.”
Does he think he can beat Van der Poel, currently being talked up as the Milan-San Remo favourite? “It depends on the finish. But it’s always possible to beat him. But he’s hard to beat, he’s really strong.”
As for his own San Remo prospects, Gilbert said: “I’m honestly happy with the shape I have now because two or three months ago I was long way from where I am now. I’ve been working hard and I’m coming back to my best level. I don’t know if I’m going to be 100 per cent [at San Remo], but I’m going to be good.”
He acknowledged, though, that time is definitely against him when it comes to adding San Remo to his collection of Monuments.
“I know it’s not easy and it gets worse every year, because more riders come through and the competition is greater.”
He agreed with the oft-heard maxim that San Remo is the easiest Classic to finish and the hardest to win.
“Even a good amateur rider can finish Milan-San Remo because it’s really not hard to finish. But to win it, even to make a top 10 is really hard, because there are so many riders out there who want to win that it’s really hectic in the final.” Gilbert, though, believes he’s still among those who can win San Remo.
Like his rider, Lotto-Soudal team manager John Lelangue refused to say how Gilbert might get the better of the punchy riders who are currently sweeping everyone before them.
“Everything is possible. Look at Opening Weekend, it showed they’re human too,” Lelangue said.
“We know it’s complicated. But anything can happen and even more so in one-day races where things can change in a second. We’re still confident that we can find the key to change things, to make things happen. This is also a good way to make us change some of our habits a little bit. It’s up to us to adapt our plans, and we will.”
Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).
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