Lotto Soudal's Philippe Gilbert won't be alone in his assertion that 2020 has been a year to forget, but the 38-year-old Belgian perhaps has more reason than many in the cycling world to be looking forward to the 2021 cycling season after crashing out of the Tour de France on the opening stage and finishing the season with just 34 race days.
Following the enforced shutdown of racing due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gilbert returned to competition at Strade Bianche on August 1, and had soon hit his stride with ninth place at Milan-San Remo a week later.
He started the rescheduled Tour de France in late August with the intention of trying to take the second Tour stage win of his career, but a crash on the wet opening stage in Nice quickly put paid to such ambitions, and he was a non-starter for stage 2 after being diagnosed with a broken kneecap. It was the second broken kneecap of Gilbert's career after injuring the same knee in a dramatic crash on the descent of the Col de Portet-d'Aspet at the 2018 Tour.
Although Gilbert was given the all clear by doctors to return to racing as soon as the Tour of Luxembourg in mid-September, he pulled out of the BinckBank Tour ahead of the third stage at the end of the month after continuing to experience knee pain, ending this season with just 34 days of racing and no victories for the first time in his professional career.
"It's been a year to forget very quickly. The moment I started to approach my best form, there was that fall at the Tour," he told Belgian newspaper L'Avenir on Tuesday. "That frustrated me, because I never reached my best level this year.
"Plus, after 16 consecutive years with at least one victory, I suddenly had a season without a win. Not that I'm always chasing victories, but that statistic filled me with pride," he said.
Gilbert's crash was just one of many during the unconventional season, with arguably the two most serious crashes – Fabio Jakobsen in the bunch sprint on the opening stage of the Tour de Pologne and Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Remco Evenepoel on the descent of the Muro di Sormano at Il Lombardia – bringing the dangers of racing into starker focus than ever.
"That first Tour stage was always going to be dangerous. They [race organisers] knew it was going to be an ice rink [if it rained], and yet the stage still went ahead," Gilbert told L'Avenir, according to Het Nieuwsblad. "At Milan-San Remo, they made us ride through unlit tunnels.
"But we shouldn't put all the blame on the organisers, either," he continued. "When it comes to Remco's crash at Il Lombardia, the race organisation was also blamed, when it was Remco who made a mistake. He made a steering error after taking too many risks. When I crashed at the 2018 Tour, there was also only one person to blame: me."
On the subject of Belgium's current biggest two star riders – Evenepoel and Jumbo-Visma's Wout van Aert – Gilbert was full of praise, even if he's not fully convinced by former teammate Evenepoel's use of social media.
"He can be quite theatrical with his comments," Gilbert said, referring to the 20-year-old's sometimes rash responses on social media, "and I can understand how some people can get a bit annoyed by that.
"But he needs that – he likes people to talk about him – and he races with panache, just like [Tour de France winner] Tadej Pogačar also raced this year, so it's a pleasure to watch them race."
Of this year's Milan-San Remo winner Van Aert, Gilbert continued: "If I were him, I would try to win all the Monuments first. Il Lombardia may be too tough, but he can actually win anywhere, although to win a Grand Tour he'd have to lose a few kilos."
Milan-San Remo is the only Monument missing from Gilbert's own palmarès, but he told L'Avenir that he's not obsessed with trying to win the Italian Classic before he finishes his career, according to HLN.
"That race remains in the back of my mind, but there are still some other nice races on my wish list, such as the E3 BinckBank Classic [the E3 Saxo Bank Classic in 2021] and Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders," he said.
And he has unfinished business with the Tour de France, too.
"I crashed in both 2018 and 2020, and was not selected for it in 2019. It would be a shame if my history with the Tour de France ended there," said Gilbert. "I'm looking forward to starting there again."
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