Regardless of what he achieves on the 200-kilometre loop from Ghent and back on Saturday afternoon, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is likely to mark Philippe Gilbert’s sole appearance in a cobbled classic this year. For the third successive season, the Belgian focuses his attention on the Ardennes Classics, while Greg Van Avermaet will lead the line for BMC at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
It hasn’t always been thus, of course. Gilbert finished on the podium of the Tour of Flanders in successive years before breaking his Ardennes duck at Amstel Gold Race in 2010, and by the time he landed the hat-trick of Ardennes Classics victories during his annus mirabilis of 2011, many wondered whether Gilbert might become the next man – after Messrs. Merckx, De Vlaeminck and Van Looy – to win all five of the Monument Classics.
Four years on, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy remain the only Monuments on Gilbert’s palmarès, and while Milan-San Remo is a perennial goal, he has not raced Paris-Roubaix since 2007 and the Tour of Flanders has also been excised from his programme in the intervening period. Despite his recent specialisation, however, Gilbert told reporters in Kortrijk on Friday that completing the quintet remains an ambition.
“This is a goal but I know it’s very hard,” Gilbert said. “When I was younger I thought I’d win Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders sooner than I won the Tour of Lombardy. I thought Lombardy was the one I’d never win because it’s so hard. But you have to work specifically for these races.”
For the time being, splitting objectives with Van Avermaet – who has himself shone in the Ardennes in years past – makes sense for both Gilbert and BMC. At 32 years of age, however, Gilbert is aware that the window of opportunity is slowly closing. “Yeah, sure, I can’t wait much longer,” he said of Paris-Roubaix. “I will give it a try.”
For the time being, the focus is on Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where Gilbert confirmed his youthful promise with a fine solo victory in 2006, before repeating the feat in his final season at La Française des Jeux two years later.
“That year we really prepared specifically for that race with FDJ,” Gilbert said of his maiden Omloop, explaining that specialisation was en vogue in 2006, too. “We stayed in Ghent for the week beforehand and we went out on the course every day, we really worked on that. We knew at FDJ that we couldn’t win Flanders because we were young guys and not strong enough, so we focused on races that suited us more. I did my strong attack and I knew as well that I had the support of the team.”
Although affected by illness during the week, Gilbert arrives at Omloop holding on to more than a shard of form after finishing second and third on the two stages of the Tour du Haut Var last weekend. Regardless of the outcome on Saturday, Belgium’s opening weekend denotes a definite shift in gears after an early-season that took him to Dubai and Qatar.
“We’ve done a few races in exotic countries already but here it feels a bit different. These are the kinds of races we’ll have for the next couple months, with the crowds on the roadside and it’s good to get used to this style of racing again,” he said.
“I was a bit ill a couple of days ago but I didn’t really miss out on too much training and I’m more or less where I expected to be at this time of the year. I hope I’ll keep improving as the weeks go on until we get to the Ardennes Classics.”
Gilbert was circumspect on his chances of landing a third Omloop victory on Saturday, however. “It’s complicated to say that I’m going to win tomorrow, because there are a lot of factors to take into consideration,” he said. “There are more riders capable of winning over this distance so you can’t say too much.”
The bookmakers instead have Van Avermaet chalked as the more likely victor out of BMC’s two leaders. The Belgian was surprisingly beaten by Ian Stannard (Sky) in a two-up sprint 12 months ago, but impressed many with the fluidity of his pedalling at the Tour of Qatar earlier in the month. Since winning Paris-Tours in 2011, Van Avermaet has endured some near misses in major races, but he said last year’s defeat here had not preyed on his mind.
“It’s over,” he said with a rueful smile. “It would be bad if I was still dreaming about it 365 days later. I thought about it for a few days afterwards and that’s normal. But for me, this is a new race and another opportunity.”