PONTEVEDRA, Spain (VN) — The short but steep hilltop finale of Monday’s third stage at the Vuelta a España is just the kind of finish BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert loves.
Steep enough to eliminate the pure sprinters, yet fast enough where he can out-kick the climbers, the Cat. 3 Mirador de Lobeira fits the profile of a stage finale that’s become the currency of the Belgian throughout his career, so much so that they’ve even earned the moniker of a “Gilbert climb.”
Yet it’s highly unlikely that the reigning world champion will win Monday, not with the kind of season he’s been having, and not with a Vuelta field that includes the likes of Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha).
Gilbert remains winless in his world championship season, and a heavy fall at the Eneco Tour that required eight stitches on his left knee a week before the start of the Vuelta certainly doesn’t help, either.
With time running out on his world champion season, should Gilbert dare utter the “C” word?
“I am not superstitious, but after the season I am having, I am beginning to wonder,” Gilbert told VeloNews with a smile. “Maybe this talk of a rainbow jersey curse is true!”
Gilbert, 31, is enduring his worst year since turning pro in 2003, and could become the first world champion in decades to not win at least one race during his spell in the rainbow stripes.
Gilbert was once one of the peloton’s most prolific winners, ending the 2011 season ranked No. 1, and he does not like to be reminded of the fact that so far he has not snagged a win in the rainbow jersey.
“I have had bad luck, it is true,” he said. “I have had bad luck all season. I have been missing the victory just by a small margin so many times.”
Indeed, Gilbert has posted nine top-3 finishes throughout the year, with results that have included losing a reduced bunch sprint to Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) at Paris-Nice to getting raided by Peter Sagan (Cannondale) at Brabantse Pijl (Brabant Arrow).
Gilbert’s sour mood is in sharp contrast to January at the start of the season at the Santos Tour Down Under. When VeloNews sat down with Gilbert, he was optimistic he was back on track following a sub-par 2012 season that he managed to salvage with a dramatic final run through the Vuelta and worlds.
“My level has been good all season. It’s not like last year, when I had so many problems, that I was not good until late,” he said. “I have been close to victory, just missing that few percentage points to win.”
After a mountainous Tour de France that gave him few opportunities to win, Gilbert is gaining strength and confidence throughout August. He was second at the Belgian national time trial championships, and second again in stage 2 at the Eneco Tour.
Going into the Eneco Tour, Gilbert was confident that an elusive win was imminent, and he could get the monkey off his back.
Yet everything unraveled — again — when he crashed on August 17 along with BMC teammate Taylor Phinney, who abandoned the race. Gilbert managed to pick himself up and finish the stage in 22nd place with a bloodied knee, but doctors later said a deep gash would require stitches, and he did not start the final stage.
And to add insult to injury, the crash came just as he rolled into his hometown at the base of the Redoute.
For Gilbert, that’s starting to sound a lot like a curse.
“The crash came 200 or 300 meters after the sign of my village,” Gilbert said, referring to Remouchamps at the base of the La Redoute climb. “I could not believe it. To crash in my hometown, with so many people there, cheering for me, it was hard mentally. I had such ambition for that day.”
As frustrating as that might have been, Gilbert later received eight stitches, throwing an unexpected hurdle into his preparation for his world championship defense next month.
Gilbert said he missed only “two days” completely off the bike, adding, “I cannot lose the good form I have in just a few days. The problem was that I could not ride with equal strength in both legs. And that creates problems in the hips, the back. [Saturday] was the first day I felt I could put full weight on the leg.”
BMC has staunchly supported its beleaguered world champion, giving him the encouragement and backing he needs to get in position to win.
This Vuelta, with no less than 11 uphill finales, presents several opportunities for Gilbert to win.
“[Monday] is perfect for him. It’s his first big objective of this Vuelta,” BMC sport director Yvon Ledonais told VeloNews. “I have confidence in Phil. The last several months have been difficult for him, but he is a big champion. All he needs is a bit of luck.”
So far, Gilbert seems to be having the wrong kind of luck. Ledonais said the crash at the Eneco Tour came at the worst possible time.
“Phil is building up for the Vuelta and the worlds, two big goals. He really wants to win a stage here. When he crashed at the Eneco Tour, he could not believe it,” Ledonais said. “We hope he is ready for the worlds. It’s a good course for him, but it’s also good for Sagan, Boasson Hagen, [Alejandro] Valverde, [and Vincenzo] Nibali. We know he is strong, but the crash was not good.”
Gilbert echoed the frustration, and admitted he cannot afford to hit the deck again during the Vuelta.
“I am very scared to crash again. I cannot take risks at this Vuelta. If I land on the knee, it would open again. I cannot risk missing the worlds,” he said. “I have three weeks to use this Vuelta to get ready for the worlds. The sensations are getting better.”
Whether those sensations improve fast enough to give Gilbert the legs to win a race before September 29 remains to be seen. Time is running out.