Philippe Gilbert has laid out his spring schedule for 2022, what will be his last season in the pro peloton. The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix winner will not take on either race this year, instead focusing on the Ardennes Classics.
The 39-year-old, who reaches the end of his three-year deal with Lotto Soudal, will also take on Milan-San Remo in one final attempt to win the race and complete the challenge of winning all five Monuments – a feat last achieved by Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck back in the 1970s.
Gilbert won Il Lombardia in 2009 and 2010, Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2011, the Tour of Flanders in 2017, and Paris-Roubaix in 2019. He has twice stepped on the podium in San Remo, though hasn't done so since 2011.
"I'll start with the Challenge Mallorca at the end of January," Gilbert told Het Nieuwsblad at Lotto Soudal's pre-season training camp. "I'll also ride the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad because it's a very nice event. I still remember the very first time, 17 years ago. I'm always motivated for it.
"Then I'll go one last time in search of the one missing piece in my collection of Monuments. Although Milan-San Remo remains a difficult race – who would have predicted that Stuyven would win last year?
"I'm not riding the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. I don't want to be distracted. I'm going for the Ardennes Classics. It's a logical choice and I'm preparing for them specifically. Ardennes week will be special. It will be a beautiful moment. I know everyone there and I'll be 'playing a home game'. It's always nice."
Gilbert's spring, then, will revolve around an 18th attempt at Milan-San Remo, and the Ardennes, where he became only the second rider to do the 'treble' – winning Amtel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
For summer, he's set to return to the Tour de France for a 10th time, something Gilbert had cast doubt upon in 2021 by suggesting that it might be his last participation at the race.
"I want to go to the Tour for a 10th time. It's a nice number. Last year I gave an interview and said it might be my last Tour. When I saw the new parcours I was eager to return. Denmark, the fans, the cobbled stage, Longwy [a stage that runs through Gilbert's home region of Wallonia] – it sounds good."
Though 2022 is obviously a special season for Gilbert, being his last, the winter preceding it hasn't been much different from any other, he said, noting that he enjoys the process in building up form and fitness for the new year.
"I experienced a winter like all other years, making sure I did every part of my build-up carefully. I love the process of looking for your best condition from scratch. It motivates me and it's always just as exciting. I didn't get sick, everything went well, and the basis is there for a good season.
"Of course, I am better than last year. Then I rode on one leg. My right thigh has four centimetres less circumference. I really had a lot of problems after my two big crashes at the Tour where I fell on my knees twice. I suffered a lot because of that, and I couldn't reach the level I wanted."
For Gilbert, 2021 wasn't the season he had hoped for, and he recorded no wins, with his best results coming with top five placings at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Brussels Cycling Classic. That feeling of disappointment seems to be one felt around the team, which finished a lowly 18th in the UCI rankings with 12 wins on the board.
That total – which included two Caleb Ewan Giro d'Italia stage wins and Brent Van Moer's memorable Critérium du Dauphiné stage win – matched the team's 2020 haul but was some way short of previous years, which saw them record 20+ victories stretching back to 2010.
There has been a shakeup at the squad for 2022 with long-time directeur sportif Herman Frison and former team manager Marc Sergeant leaving, while Allan Davis and Cherie Pridham join along with new chief business officer Yana Seel, formerly of Astana.
On the rider's side, several youngsters have signed up, including Hagens Berman Axeon alumni Jarrad Drizners, while the returning Victor Campenaerts is the marquee signing.
"It wasn't terribly good, was it?" Gilbert said of the team's 2021 campaign. "Enough has been written about it. When things are bad everything collapses. I felt the team slipping and it wasn't just a lack of results – it was everything. The team was at an all-time low. It couldn't get any lower.
"It was high time that the atmosphere changed. It was very difficult to live in the team but now it's better. We have a better base, better elements in all ranks and the atmosphere is better. Everyone says so. Everyone has more desire and that drives the team forward.
"A lot has changed. We have many new faces. Everyone gives the impression that they're motivated. The expectations and ambitions – everything is clearer and easier. It was also good that we ended with Florian Vermeersch finishing second in Paris-Roubaix. It was proof for the young riders that anything is possible."
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