Paris-Roubaix was Philippe Gilbert's 50th monument Classic but only his second ride on the French pave. The Quick-Step Floors rider is chasing success in all five of cycling's monuments, with only victories at Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix missing from his palmares but admitted that a lack of Roubaix-experience probably cost him more that had expected, leaving him struggling in the finale after an early attack in the Forest of Arenberg.
"It's certainly true that at certain moments in the race - despite studying the course - I felt a bit lost. It's not always easy to orientate. That's experience," Gilbert admitted.
Just over three minutes after world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) sprinted to victory on the Roubaix velodrome, Gilbert finished with former winner John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), winning the sprint for 15th place. That wasn't the result he had hoped for.
Relaxed and reflective after the race, he spoke while sitting on the top tube of this bike.
"I'm disappointed but there are no excuses. There's not much to say. Everybody finished on the spot they deserved in this race," Gilbert said.
Despite his lack of experience of the pave, Gilbert was regarded as one of the big favourites for Paris-Roubaix. and he raced with confidence when he attacked with Mike Teunissen (Sunweb) on the famous cobbles of the Arenberg Trouée.
With 94 kilometres still to race, Gilbert perhaps knew it wouldn't be the winning move but was hoping other riders would join them. However 16 kilometres later, the breakaway attempt was neutralised.
"I saw the Sunweb rider go on the left and said 'on y va', let's go. I did it because the race had already been hard and I didn't know what was going to happen. I figured it would be good to enjoy a bit of a bonus. I marked his move and didn't do much of an effort.
"He led on the cobbles and afterwards we waited for [Nils] Politt from Katusha because then at least three teams wouldn't be chasing. Behind us they were organising well while we weren't going flat out because it was still a long way to the finish. The wind didn't blow from the direction they forecasted and we faced quite a bit of headwind. At that moment of the race, we didn't spend too much energy. We didn't have much information. We didn't know how the wind would blow and it was still very far. Everybody was afraid."
Once Gilbert was back in the group of favourites, Zdenek Stybar made a solo move as Quick-Step Floors tried to take control of the race. Gilbert eventually lost contact with the group that would try to chase Sagan. He explained that he went through some difficult moments during what was a key part of the race.
"Afterwards, I didn't drink enough. I had 'la fringale', I was bonking for 30-40 kilometres. I slowly got better but the race was over for me. I missed a few bottles and paid for it. It's a very, very hard race. It's complicated. It was a good experience and I suffered, like everybody. I didn't go too bad over the cobbles," Gilbert said.
Gilbert was still in the first peloton when Sagan attacked but there was no way he would chase back the world champion.
"Just before that moment there had been quite a few accelerations. Everybody was on the limit. There was no organisation at all and no team was riding together. He looked back and saw that he had a gap and went for it. He went at the right moment but obviously you certainly need good legs to do it."
Never give up
Gilbert might enjoy good legs himself but he wasn't able to show it. He regretted that he wasn't able to do what some other riders managed to do: bounce back from a difficult moment and get a good result.
"In this race you can never sit up, you always have to keep up the pressure and you've got to continue to believe in yourself. You saw what happened. There were quite a few riders who managed to come back into the race, who rode in my group, and eventually managed to finish in the top-10. You should never throw in the towel."
This year, Gilbert is riding all the big Classics, from Milano-San Remo, over the cobbles of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, and on the longer climbs of Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Gilbert won the Amstel Gold Race four times and also won the world championships race on the same course in 2012. He won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2011.
After the Tour of Flanders, Gilbert joked that it was easy because it was only one race per week, ideal for an old man like him. Shortly after finishing Paris-Roubaix, it wasn't easy for him to switch focus to next Sunday's Amstel Gold Race.
"First I'll take a bit of a break and then I'll focus on the Walloon races," he said.
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