Making the Quick-Step Floors team for the cobbled classics – the Belgian team's raison d'etre – is no easy feat at the best of times, and doing so as a new signing, as a 36-year-old, and after a five-year absence from the pavé, is another matter entirely. Yet Philippe Gilbert has gone above and beyond, pretty much establishing himself at the top of the team's hierarchy for Sunday's Tour of Flanders, with many placing him in the same bracket as Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) as a five-star favourite.
After a spell at BMC, where he was 'not allowed' to ride the cobbled classics due to a clash with Van Avermaet, Gilbert is under no illusions as to how good he is feeling right now. He shaped the race at Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, finishing second on both occasions [the first behind a teammate], and he asserted his dominance all over the Three Days of De Panne earlier this week.
The Belgian champion, however, is refusing to get ahead of himself, even if his teammate and compatriot Tom Boonen said on Friday that he's never seen him so strong at this point in the season.
Asked whether he considered himself a top favourite on a par with the world and Olympic champions, Gilbert simply replied: "I've worked very hard for this weekend. I believe I'm going into it with a strong condition, and that's interesting.
"I'm really good now," he added later. "I really worked heard to get here, so it's not like a miracle. I really made a lot of sacrifices to get here in good shape, so it was like on schedule, but it's never easy to make it happen."
Nor have his recent displays made him complacent that things will go smoothly once again on Sunday.
"I have the impression that I can do better, but there are no guarantees in these races,” he said. "A small error of placement, for example on the Paterberg, if you're in a group there on the final time, and you're at the back of it, then you can forget about winning the race. Even at the top, if you're three metres back, three metres quickly becomes 20 metres. If you're badly positioned you've lost."
Quick-Step's approach for Sunday, as always, will revolve around the embarrassment of options they possess, with the likes Boonen, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar and Matteo Trentin all conceivable winners. Boonen seemed to earmark Gilbert as the team's number one card, but the man himself is reluctant to adopt that responsibility explicitly.
"We will see on Sunday. I have no stress about this. We have a lot of options and that's always good. You can play different cards, other teams can have problems because they know they'll always have at Quick-Step behind them.
"Certainly with Tom, in his last Tour of Flanders, we're all motivated to support his last exploit, then the others, Stybar, Terpstra, even Yves Lampaert, are all capable of exploits. We are well-armed."
Quick-Step will need to be well-armed to out-manoeuvre a Sagan who left no doubt as to his superiority 12 months ago, and a Van Avermaet who won both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem last week. Particularly when it comes to world champion, Gilbert feels Sagan's immense individual strength more than makes up for the collective weakness of his Bora-Hansgrohe team relative to Quick-Step.
"Sagan has shown he's not scared of losing," said Gilbert, referring to Gent-Wevelgem, where his argument with Terpstra over workload allowed Van Avermaet to sneak up the road. "If I can play against him maybe that's a card I can use. But with Sagan there’s not much you can do.
"With Sagan I've never seen him in a strong team – always in teams where he's isolated. He was in a team at Tinkoff at the Tour de France that was built for [Alberto] Contador – he was alone in the sprints and he still won the green jersey. At Liquigas it was the same with [Ivan] Basso and he won his stages. He's a talented rider, the world champion, and he really is someone he can work on his own."
If everything were to go to plan for Gilbert, he'd move one step closer to completing the bingo card of cycling's Monuments. Already winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2011) and Il Lombardia (2009 and 2010), Gilbert seems more inspired now by Milan-San Remo and the two big cobbled classics.
"Winning the five Monuments remains my dream," he said. "On Sunday I've got a great chance."
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