Eleven years on, the road to Roubaix is as rocky as it ever was, but the lie of the land has changed for Philippe Gilbert.
The Belgian's sole participation in Paris-Roubaix came in the colours of FDJ back in 2007, when he was, to all intents and purposes, making up the numbers. His second appearance comes this Sunday in the blue of Quick-Step Floors, where he lines out among the favourites despite more than a decade away from the pavé of northern France.
"In 2007 it was just to try it. I didn't make any specific preparation and the equipment we had was so-so," Gilbert said on Thursday of that far-off debut, when he reached the velodrome in 52nd place, almost 10 minutes down on winner Stuart O'Grady at the end of a race fought out in unseasonable heat.
"This time a lot of specific work has gone into it. We have the best equipment and the team is really strong, so it's a totally different situation. My form is good too. I've got all the elements in place to hope to do a good race but I don't have the experience. I'm just looking forward to seeing on Sunday how far I can go with the specialists on the pavé."
Gilbert's powers had appeared to be waning steadily during the final part of his tenure at BMC, but the switch to Quick-Step Floors ahead of the 2017 season coincided with a remarkable upturn in his results in the biggest one-day races. After landing the Tour of Flanders last year, he revived his longstanding ambition of winning all five Monument Classics, and announced his intention to make a concerted tilt at Paris-Roubaix.
"I think it's time," Gilbert told reporters at a press conference in Kortrijk on Thursday. "I'm in the latter part of my career now. I didn't want to risk it before, so I left it towards the end of my career, so I think it's logical to go for it now."
Early in his career, Gilbert showcased his dexterity by riding – and winning – across all terrains in one-day races, but in order to avoid a clash with Greg Van Avermaet at BMC, he was persuaded to eschew the cobbles altogether in order to focus his attention on the Ardennes Classics.
As the years went by, however, it became apparent that the heavy emphasis on repeating his 2011 Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory was misplaced. The switch to Quick-Step allowed Gilbert to recalibrate and return to the rough and tumble of the cobbled Classics, and his participation in Paris-Roubaix this year is an extension of the thought.
"I always imagined riding Roubaix, because I've always been good on the pavé, but I've done other things in my career," Gilbert said. "It's practically like I've been doing another sport for a few years, because I was racing against climbers and now I'm competing with rouleurs. If we were talking about it in boxing terms, it's like competing in two completely different categories. And I like that challenge too, because it's something completely different."
Gilbert's five years or so away from the pavé were hardly wasted – he claimed a world title in 2012 and the third of four Amstel Gold Race wins in 2014 – but one wonders how his palmarès would read if he had not recused himself from the cobbled Classics.
"I won't say I've got regrets, but it's true that I could have pushed more for my place in those Classics," Gilbert said, "But that's how it is."
Since joining Quick-Step, Gilbert has established himself as the fulcrum of a Classics squad that has outperformed all others over the past two Springs. At the Tour of Flanders a year ago, Gilbert was the beneficiary of Quick-Step's sheer weight of numbers, escaping from a distance while Niki Terpstra et al policed the chasers behind.
This season, Gilbert has more often found himself acting as a rather deluxe stopper, shadowing men like Peter Sagan and Van Avermaet, while Terpstra helped himself to E3 Harelbeke and the Ronde.
Gilbert evinces no frustration about how the deck has been played thus far, however, and rejected the idea that he would set out for Paris-Roubaix as Quick-Step's preordained leader. As at the Ronde, he will have equal billing with Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert.
"It would be an error to focus just on me. It's up to me to be stronger or to take the role in the right moment," Gilbert said. "Niki went at a very good moment in the race and he had very good legs, and I was covering behind.
"As a team, we've won almost everything until now, so I think there's a lot of pressure on the other riders and you can see it also, they are starting to stress because they cannot beat us. This can put us in a really good situation."
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