GHENT, Belgium (VN) — BMC Racing is confident and ready for the Ardennes classics after Wednesday’s precursor at De Brabantse Pijl. At a press conference today in Chaudfontaine, Belgium, Philippe Gilbert said that the midweek race gave him and his teammates a boost heading into the three hilly classics, starting with the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday.
“I made a good choice to skip [Tour of] Flanders and go to [Vuelta al] País Vasco, to ride hard in the climbs and make big efforts,” Gilbert said Friday. “We could see on Wednesday that the choice already paid. I was second; it wasn’t a win, but I was close and it gave me confidence.”
The world champion was second behind Peter Sagan (Cannondale) on Wednesday. Despite the miss, BMC Racing took new confidence out of the race.
The team fired on all cylinders. Greg Van Avermaet, fourth in Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, forced the final escape. He and Gilbert had the advantage on Sagan, but not the legs to beat him. It was close, however.
“Brabantse Pijl is the last dress rehearsal and it’s good to have one before the big race, before the big week — Amstel, Flèche, and Liège,” director John Lelangue added. “What we tried in Brabantse Pijl was working, even if we were only second. It was a good race to see that we have the right guys in the right moment, that we can take control in one moment, not too early, not too late, that we can make offensive, and in the end, that we are there with a lot of confidence.
“[It’s] also the fact that Greg was in the offensive, that we made the offense with our riders, that Greg was still alone and in the lead, and only Sagan was coming back with Philippe in the wheel. [This] means that we are ready and that we are gaining a lot of confidence.”
Gilbert, who won the Amstel Gold Race in 2011 before going on to complete the Ardennes treble, should take comfort from the familiar grounds. Not only has he raced here several times, but this is also the exact same finish where he won the world title in September. This year, Amstel organizers bumped the finish line back, adding a 1.8km stretch of slightly downhill road atop the Cauberg climb, mirroring the worlds finish.
BMC Racing previewed the course today, taking special note of the new route leading to the finish. Instead of leading the riders directly to the Cauberg, this year the Fromberg and Keutenberg climbs feature in the second of three circuits after the point-to-point approach from Maastricht. After the penultimate climb of the Cauberg, the Geulhemmerberg and Bemelerberg will appear in the new, final lap leading back to the Cauberg and the finish.
“It’ll be a little bit different, and it’s not only the finish line,” Lelangue said. “These big climbs that we had before, the last really selective climbs like the Fromberg, Keutenberg … All of those climbs are a little bit more before the last loop, which means there could be a selection [earlier].”
On their recon ride, a southerly wind that rocked through Belgium and the Dutch Limburg region on Thursday hit the riders. It carried a change and the mercury is rising after a frigid cobbled classics season. Forecasters predict 70 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday in Maastricht.
“The only thing we can’t manage for the moment is the wind,” Lelangue continued. “The wind will be key on this race, not key in the fact that it’ll be an echelon race, like you see in Flanders sometimes, but if the wind is in a certain direction it’ll maybe force the race to be a little bit closer and controlled until the last time on the Cauberg.
“If the wind is going in a good direction, maybe it means that we have to go in a more offensive way where we can come to a situation like in Brabantse Pijl, where we have the main leader with seven to eight guys in the front.”
“I like the nice weather, it’s always better for your motivation and morale; it’s always easier to race,” Gilbert added. “I hope we have a nice day with 18 to 20 degrees [66 F] and not too much wind, and then I’ll be good in the final.”
Lelangue underlined the fact that Sagan is the team’s main rival, but added that Brabantse Pijl showed that his leaders, Gilbert and Van Avermaet, are “on the level.”
“He’s the favorite, there’s no question about that,” Gilbert continued. “I’m not sure he can win, but if he can win it’s very nice for him because winning as a favorite is always something very special, but I hope that we can beat him.”