He’s not in the same shape he was at this time last year, and lady luck has kept her distance thus far in 2012, but Philippe Gilbert is calm and confident heading into this weekend’s two one-day WorldTour events, E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem.
At a press conference held Thursday at BMC Racing’s team hotel in Kortrijk, Belgium, Gilbert said the sensations he’d felt at Milan-San Remo last weekend, prior to an ill-timed crash on the Cipressa, told him everything he needed to know about his form.
Asked about exhibiting an air of confidence that he has lacked thus far this year, Gilbert said he’d broken through at San Remo after a Tirreno-Adriatico marred by equipment issues and illness.
“Yes, I’m more confident,” Gilbert said. “I felt some things at Milan-San Remo that gave me confidence. I was good. Even though I had bad luck, for me it was a good day. I found the legs again.”
Lotto-Belisol director — and Gilbert’s former coach — Dirk De Wolf told Het Laatste Nieuws Wednesday he believes that Gilbert would have won Milan-San Remo if he hadn’t crashed on the Cipressa, and that the Belgian national champion will be on the podium at both Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders.
“It’s too bad about that crash,” De Wolf said. “But if he was on the Poggio along with Cancellara, Nibali and Gerrans, he would have beaten them in the sprint.”
And though he is feeling fit, Gilbert pointed to two-time Harelbeke winner Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) and Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tom Boonen as the big favorites for Harelbeke.
Gilbert also took a jab at Cancellara’s RadioShack team for not contributing at the front of the peloton last weekend.
“Cancellara was really strong at Milan-San Remo, he’s the number-one favorite [for Harelbeke],” Gilbert said. “For us, it’s not on us to try [to make the race]. We were riding [the front] for nothing [no result] at San Remo. Maybe now other teams can ride, such as Cancellara’s team for example; they didn’t pull at all in San Remo. Maybe this weekend they can work.”
Gilbert has made no secret that he wants to win the Tour of Flanders, preferably in his Belgian national champion’s kit, and he now has just over a week to reach peak form. For that reason, he said, this weekend’s itinerary — race Harelbeke Friday, rest Saturday and race Ghent-Wevelgem Sunday — is ideal.
“For me, I can improve my condition a lot in one week,” he said. “I’m on the way up, I’m going better every day.”
Gilbert said he hoped that the lesser race favorites wouldn’t race negatively against Cancellara as has become the norm with the Swiss classics powerhouse. “I hope they don’t do like last year,” Gilbert said. “It’s never been my tactic to just follow one guy. Of course, if you give Fabian five seconds, it’s hard to get it back, but I’m not going to be the guy who is always behind him. If he attacks I’ll have to follow him, but I’m not a guy like [Filippo] Pozzato, always following.”
And what if the rest of the race favorites were to race negatively against Gilbert, rather than, or in addition to, Cancellara? “We will see,” he said. “At the end, when it’s a hard race, the best are always at the front.”
Asked if it has been frustrating to race with lesser condition than he enjoyed in 2011, Gilbert said he recognizes that some matters have been out of his control.
“You don’t like it, but it is life,” he said. “I’ve always said that last year I had no bad luck. Everything was normal; everything was going well, week-by-week, day-by-day. This year there have been a lot of little things, and if you have 10 little things, it’s the same as one big thing. At the end, all the little things can make a big difference. I hope all my bad luck is finished, and that I can finally go for some nice results. I hope it starts tomorrow.”
Gilbert was also asked if he would again be able to hold good all the way through the Ardennes classics, which culminate with Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he will be the defending champion, on April 22.
“This year it’s easy, because I’m not yet on a good level, I’m still searching. It’s not like last year, when I was searching and then trying to hold it, trying to not go too deep,” Gilbert said. “Now it’s the opposite. I’m searching for top shape, and when I have it, it will be a short time I have it. Liège is only four weeks away.”