This weekend Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) returns to race the team time trial at the UCI Road World Championships after a five-year absence, and the former road race winner is determined to claim another rainbow jersey.
Gilbert, 35, was part of the BMC Racing team that narrowly finished second behind Omega Pharma-Quickstep in the 2012 TTT debut event, and while the Belgian has since swapped squads, he believes that his new team can defend their crown from 12 months ago and win a record fifth title.
"It's a really hard course with a lot of changes. It's a bit like Valkenburg in 2012 in that it's technical but it's a complete course with a lot of changes. It's all up and down," Gilbert tells Cyclingnews, having previewed the course for the first time on Friday morning.
Gilbert, Bob Jungels, Niki Terpstra, Yves Lampaert, Jack Bauer and Julien Vermote make up Quick-Step's time trial contingent, with Gilbert and Bauer the only changes from last year's winning team.
The riders and a small number of staff have rented three local properties near the start-finish area on the outskirts of Bergen. It's a move designed to keep them close enough to the course but far enough out of the city centre so that they can prepare in relative peace. As team mechanics made a fresh batch of croque monsieurs on a portable grill situated in one of the gardens, Gilbert gave his take on what many have called the hardest TTT ever in a Worlds.
The 45.2km profile couldn't be more different from the one riders faced last year. The fast, flat tracks of the Middle East have been replaced by a course that offers little respite and plenty of elevation. Strong rouleurs still have their place here in Bergen, but teams have also looked for riders who can eke out advantages on the climbs and descents. No wonder it's a course that Gilbert aligns with.
"I like it. Here you also really work together with the staff and the riders. It's a nice experience, going through it all together. With the course you start with a climb so it's hard from the beginning. I think we're going to see a lot of teams really blowing and not finishing together. The key is going to have your stronger [riders] go slower so that they can draft the others."
The absence of Tony Martin – a mainstay in Quick-Step's armoury in previous TTTs, makes Gilbert's role vital. He may not have the horsepower of some of the more established time triallists, but as shown in the Tour of Flanders this year, he can raise his game when needed. Like Martin, he is also a focal point and figurehead for others in the team to rally around.
"Everyone is important," he says, "and I like the change of rhythm that you can have on a course like this. I'll be better than, say on a course like the flat one we had in Qatar last year."
Of course, last year Gilbert didn't make the cut, and was deemed not quite good enough to make the BMC Racing roster. It wasn't a lack of desire that held him back, but the simple fact that his then squad had a glut of time trial kings.
"At BMC, the 'problem' was that they had so many riders and it meant they could almost race two teams in the event," he says.
"They had to make choices, and I just wasn't good enough to make it into their six."
Although Quick-Step lack an on-form Martin, they still posses depth and form – as shown by their recent runner-up result to BMC Racing in the opening TTT at the Vuelta. This is a very different arena to the one that kicked off the Spanish Grand Tour, and Team Sky, Sunweb, and of course, BMC Racing, have brought their very best.
"It's hard to say," Gilbert says when asked who the favourites for Sunday are.
"There are more teams that can do well. Sky are really strong and if you look at the names, they've got the biggest team here. We have to start thinking that we have a big chance, and that we believe in ourselves."
Belief will certainly be paramount for any team with hopes of winning this weekend. Gilbert, will be gunning for another world title to add to the one he claimed in the road race five years ago, although he suggested that the sport could do more to recognise those who stand on the top step in the event.
"I was close when we lost by a few seconds in 2012, but even if you don't get a sign on your jersey, nothing, it's still important for you and the team and something that you can be proud of," he says, pointing to the fact that unlike in the road or individual time trial, riders are not given a year in a rainbow jersey if they win the TTT.
"If you organise a World Championships then you need to do something. We start with a long list and even the guys that are not here, they were part of the process. They were part of the training and the camp, so in a way they're here with us. I think they all deserve a rainbow sign if we win."
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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