He rode all of last season in the stripes of the world champion, but there was little doubt: Philippe Gilbert wasn’t riding well, and many thought his best days were well behind him. He won one race, a stage at the Vuelta a España, late in the season. He finished second twice, and in the top 10 at both the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Those are results most men would take. But most men, all but two, in fact, have not swept the Ardennes week, as Gilbert (BMC Racing) did in 2011, or won the Giro di Lombardia twice. Most men aren’t Philippe Gilbert, for whom expectations are mercilessly lofty. He’s one of pro cycling’s elite, and is judged as such, even by himself.
“Even if I was world champion in 2012, I was not on my best level … especially last year. After two years like this, it’s hard. You think, ‘am I too old already?’” Gilbert said Tuesday at BMC Racing’s media day in Calpe, Spain. The Belgian added that it wasn’t a good feeling barreling toward a finish knowing he didn’t have the kick to win. For a rider with his palmares, anything other than a “W” can feel like a loss.
“I will stop cycling if it’s to do a top five only. I have more motivation than this,” he said. “When I’m not able to win anymore, I will stop.”
To get back to form, Gilbert took a step back after his 2013 season and focused on having a quiet winter. This last off-season, notably, lacked the fanfare and ceremonies that come with being a world champion. A gift and curse.
“The last season was not good. I was also disappointed in my season, my performance,” he told reporters at a media session also posted on the team’s website. “I just wanted to forget this and go for a new, successful season.
“I had a good winter. I feel good. I feel very motivated to start a new season. … I worked hard and I was really focused on what I did. I didn’t lose time on superficial things, like ceremonies and everything,” Gilbert said. “I really focused on the most important thing, which is training and rest. And this will pay, I think.”
What did he change? Not much, he said. He did use the term “perfect” for the off-season. “The weather was great in Monaco. I did everything that we planned. It was perfect. I think everybody is different, but I’m training well. I feel good,” Gilbert said.
Fair or not, everything Gilbert does and does not do will be held up against the blinding light of his 2011 campaign. It was the year he became a cycling superstar, and the year he did the unthinkable, sweeping the Ardennes races (Amstel, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège), earning a day in yellow after winning stage 1 of the Tour de France, winning Clásica San Sebastián and the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec, and riding away with the UCI WorldTour title. He wouldn’t say he was at that level now, but as far as his winter training, it’s gone as well as possible.
“I’m not far from the level of my best winters in the past,” Gilbert said. “I’m good. I feel good. And I know I will be good in the next season. … Sometimes everything goes perfect. Sometimes things go wrong, you know? I didn’t miss any of my trainings.”
He will need to return to his best to fend off a very talented, very young, and very hungry field of challengers. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) of course comes to mind, recalling the manner he took apart Gilbert last season at Brabantse Pijl. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) is plenty strong enough to repeat his Liège win of last season. Gilbert may not even be the best classics man on his own team, as the consistent Greg Van Avermaet has been knocking on the door for two seasons now. He’s been an automatic top 10 across a wide range of one-day races.
Gilbert’s early goal will be the new and, at least for a rider like Gilbert, improved Milano-Sanremo, which includes a new climb near the finish. “For me it’s Sanremo. The final changed a lot, and I like it. And the Ardennes, of course. And then we see. Because it’s so far away,” he said. Gilbert also said he hopes to watch the Tour de France not from the race itself but on television. Asked if he was on the BMC long list, his response was clear. “I hope not,” he said “I can watch on TV also.”
Gilbert also said he raced too much last season, and plans to dial it back this year. “It’s not possible to go from one race to another for 9-10 months. After the classics I will have a break, a real break,” he said. It also seems likely he will skip the cobbled classics.
“I want to win again this year in the Ardennes, that’s for sure,” he said. One thing those hilly races require is a serious burst of speed on climbs near the finish. Gilbert, of course, owned one of the very best for years. Asked if age had dragged his finishing kick down a bit, he said, laughing, he was “maybe better” now than before. “We will see in the race, but I’m really good now. Wait and see. I did a lot of sprints. I always do a lot of sprints climbing. This is my strongest point. It’s normal to walk on your best point,” he said.
And back to that rainbow jersey, the season hasn’t yet begun in earnest, but if he were to look to its very end, Gilbert may like what he would see, in a punchy worlds course in Ponferrada, Spain.
“I think it’s always good for me when the sprinters and the climbers can say we have a chance,” he said. “Because then the level is higher, and it’s easier when you’re strong. Because it’s more people working, more people in final. And when it’s only three guys, you can say, ‘I just have to look at these three guys. But when it’s the all sprinters and the climbers, it can come from anywhere, at any moment.”
That’s how the races he wins work. An attack from anywhere at any moment. The former champion was down last year. But there’s still plenty of fight left in those legs and in that head. Now, it’s just a waiting game.