Philippe Gilbert will once again race as capitaine de route for Quick-Step Floors and their young protegé Julian Alaphilippe on Sunday, and the veteran Belgian star’s key lesson concerning Liège-Bastogne-Liège is that "there aren't 40 different ways of winning it."
"In the Ardennes Classics, it's very clear. It's different to the Flemish Classics where lots of different factors can have an effect. Here, if you race intelligently, you know you'll be up there," Gilbert told reporters on Friday. "I always say that these are the easiest races to win when you are going well. You almost know before you start if you are going to win.
"The most straightforward strategy is not to lose sight of Valverde, because he’s the big favourite, with all his experience of racing here. He’s seen it all before, and what’s more he’s a rider who never loses his cool.
"He was beaten fair and square by Julian on Wednesday, but he won't be looking for revenge when he puts on his race number on Sunday. He’ll be looking to win, just like he has been doing all season."
Gilbert is one of just two riders, together with Jos Van Emden (LottoNL-Jumbo), who is lining out in all four Monuments this spring. But after two years away from Liège-Bastogne-Liège because of injuries, the Belgian was keen to take part in La Doyenne again. It is a race which Gilbert won in 2011 and in which he had taken part every year from 2003, when he turned pro, up until 2015.
"I’m a bit on the limit, particularly after so many Classics were held in bad weather,” Gilbert said. “I noticed that on Wednesday, but I could still do my work for the team, and that'll hopefully be the case again on Sunday.
"But Liège is very different to Flèche. On Sunday the climbs aren't so steep, they're steadier and that can make the race a lot more open. My job will maybe be to get in a break so that Julian will be under less pressure in the main bunch.”
Like Alaphilippe, Gilbert warned that it would be a major error to conceive the 2018 Liège-Bastogne-Liège simply as a two-way battle between the Frenchman and Valverde. Gilbert noted, however, that Alaphilippe’s victory in Flèche "has given him a new kind of freedom, and winning so young is very encouraging too. He's got the legs to win on Sunday."
Gilbert also cited Vincenzo Nibali as one particular contender who would be sure to be in the thick of the action, as the Italian was on Wednesday in La Flèche Wallonne.
"On the plus side, we're racing without any pressure, we've won so much this season," Gilbert said. "And we have a very solid team here – with young riders, yes, but they've got a great deal of experience. It's very cohesive.
"It's nice to be here in Liege, but we're not coming here to spend ten kilometres off the front in some kind of crowd-pleaser move. What we're interested in is winning."
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