OVERIJSE, Belgium (VN) — Philippe Gilbert timed it to perfection. Not only did he launch an early sprint to hold off Michael Matthews and win Brabantse Pijl Wednesday, but he did so on the eve of the Ardennes classics.
“I know this race is not the same as the Ardennes classics, but a win is good for my confidence,” BMC Racing’s former world champion said. “I was second here last year, this year first. A win makes the difference and is unique.”
The win on the outskirts of Brussels marked Gilbert’s first for 2014. It came much earlier than last year, as well.
As world champion, he had to wait until the Vuelta a España in September to flash his rainbow jersey in a victory salute. With today’s win, Gilbert showed off his red and black team colors, just four days before the Amstel Gold Race, the first of the three Ardennes classics.
“Getting that first one each year is hard for him. He’s always up there, but sometimes he just misses the right moment or anticipates it a little bit,” team director Max Sciandri told VeloNews. “Getting a win will help for the Ardennes classics. It gives you that extra confidence when you got a win under your belt.”
Gilbert last scored in Overijse in 2011. That win was part of his magical season that included the Ardennes treble. After Davide Rebellin in 2004, he was only the second cyclist to win all three Ardennes classics. Gilbert stormed through the rest of the season, scoring 18 times, earning Tour de France yellow for a day, and winning the UCI WorldTour overall.
That winter, ahead of the 2012 season, he left Lotto for BMC. Other than his three Vuelta stage wins and his 2012 world title, he has struggled since (those four wins would make a career for many riders, of course). In fact, Gilbert has won only five times since that 18-race haul in 2011.
“This is a good test ahead of the Ardennes classics, but this is also a great race in its own right,” Gilbert said. “The best riders in the world, though, will be at Amstel, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. On Sunday in Amstel, it’s going to be a different race.”
Gilbert could have lost Wednesday’s race with a late gamble to catch a group containing Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge). The Belgian attacked and bridged solo to Gerrans’ group, but the escape did not survive, leaving just 11.4 kilometers to recover ahead of the finish.
“It’s real impressive because we were chasing. He got antsy and attacked on his own. We were thinking, ‘what are you doing? No,’” teammate Peter Stetina told VeloNews. “I was scared at first, then once the field came back up to him, and he said, ‘I’m still ready to play,’ we just committed again. He had me ride him into the base of the second-to-last climb with three kilometers to go, into the wheels, then it’s all power from there.
“He’s finally got everything flowing and motivated for the week to come.”
Gilbert refused to blow the midweek Brabantse Pijl out of proportion. As he said, several of the big favorites that will be in Maastricht for the start of the Amstel Gold Race were not in Overijse.
“We are going to have to wait until after Liège-Bastogne-Liège finishes to draw conclusions,” Gilbert said. “I’m motivated by today’s result, but that doesn’t’ mean that we are going to work overtime in the Ardennes. We are only going to sacrifice one BMC rider at the front to control the race, not one more. I’m ready to lose upcoming races, but not ready to lead the races for my rivals.”
The rivals are many, from Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) to Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp). As Sciandri explained, though, an early win gives Gilbert confidence for the coming week.