TARRAGONA, Spain (VN) — The champagne tasted sweeter than usual for Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) on the Vuelta a España podium Thursday after he took his first win of the year while in the rainbow jersey.
With time running out to end his winless season, Gilbert kicked past an attacking Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) to end any talk of a rainbow jersey curse.
“The pressure was heavy with the jersey, so I am very happy to win today,” Gilbert said. “It’s a big difference wearing with the jersey. I wish I had had more wins this year, but this is a great moment.”
Thursday’s rising finale presented perhaps the final chance for Gilbert to snag a win in the world champion’s jersey.
With a string of brutal climbing stages looming in the second half of the Vuelta, it’s unlikely that Gilbert will ride all the way to Madrid.
After a season of close calls and near misses, including a razor-thin loss to Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in stage 7, Gilbert didn’t want to lose again.
“In the last 100 meters today, I was thinking about that stage that I lost to Stybar. I’m in the same situation, and to lose by one or two centimeters to Stybar, well, I didn’t want to have that feeling again,” Gilbert said. “Getting past Edvald was not easy. He’s one of the strongest guys in the world, so you cannot say I controlled him. I knew I had to give everything to come back.”
The victory comes as a huge relief for Gilbert, who was looking down the barrel at becoming the first world champion who did not win in the rainbow jersey since Luc Leblanc in 1994-95.
BMC teammate Klaas Lodewyck told VeloNews that Gilbert’s win is well deserved.
“We never doubted that Gilbert could win. He’s a big champion and he’s been racing hard all season. He’s been close,” Lodewyck said. “With the worlds coming up, it was very important for him. His morale was good during this Vuelta. He was getting stronger, because in the first days, he never thought he would go so far. He enjoys racing his bike, win or not. He will be good for the worlds.”
Gilbert defended his world championship season, saying it was not for a lack of trying that he couldn’t score a win.
“Finally! I was trying so hard to win this year. I was coming so close so many times,” he said. “I never lost motivation to race. I never lost the trust of my team, of my friends, of my family.”
For the second year in a row, the Vuelta has served as a salvation for Gilbert. Last year, he was also coming into the Spanish tour looking for his first wins. He “saved” his season with two stage wins, only to go on to win the world title.
He also defended his performances over the past two seasons. Gilbert made history in 2011 by winning 18 races, including sweeping the Ardennes classics, and ending the season ranked No. 1 in the world.
“I am always racing at the highest level. At BMC, we often had different goals. At stage races, we always bring a GC leader, so I am often working for the team, and the stages do not matter, because we are only riding to win the GC, not like when I was at Lotto,” he said. “You can only have one high point of your career. I think mine was 2011. I’ve been close to some big wins since then. We’re talking about very small differences, but it’s not easy to stay at the highest level for so many years.”
Gilbert is looking very fit and is no longer showing any of the signs of his injury from a heavy crash at the Eneco Tour that left him with stitches in his knee.
Yet he tried to downplay his chances at doubling up at the world championships, set for late September on a climb-heavy course in Tuscany.
“Now everyone will say I am the favorite for Firenze. That’s OK, because I can race with pressure, but I am not the only favorite,” Gilbert said. “There are 10 favorites. Cancellara, Sagan, the Spanish guys, many others. I don’t see the point of saying that I am the only favorite.”
For Gilbert, time is running out in the rainbow jersey. Despite not winning nearly as much as he would have liked, Gilbert has taken the role as ambassador of the sport very seriously.
Some say Gilbert has gone soft since his 2011 season, but he’s been exemplary throughout the 2013 season. He always finds time to fans, and is never afraid to pose for pictures and sign autographs.
“Every day was special in the rainbow jersey. Starting in Australia [at the Santos Tour Down Under], I could feel the difference. People were looking at me more in the eyes of the public. You are the world champion,” Gilbert said. “It’s difficult also. You always need to be an example. Every race you go to, everyone is looking at you, at the way you act, how you perform. That’s pretty hard.”
Despite only having one win, Gilbert carried himself like a world champion all season. Whether he gets another season in the rainbow jersey remains to be seen. The race in Florence could be a real classic.