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Gilbert was a late addition to Lotto Soudal’s squad for the ”Hell of the North,” and will race alongside last year’s second-place finisher Florian Vermeersch. He has raced just four days in the last month after falling ill at Paris-Nice.
“I don’t think I’m taking any risk to my health. Or I hope not,” Gilbert said during a press conference Thursday, according to Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. “First of all, it happened at my personal request. I continue to experience significant breathing problems. I don’t know if you can still call it bronchitis, but when I’m climbing, I have really big problems.”
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The 39-year-old, who was a surprise winner of the race in 2019, said he had found himself short of breath at certain pressure points in races. While he’s still recovering, he was keen to impress that it was his choice to race this weekend.
“I’m not getting enough oxygen, as I’ve noticed in the Amstel,” he said. “Roubaix is more flat, a more gradual effort. I hope I can defend my chances better there. In the ideal world, you wouldn’t be sick, of course, but I can’t control that.”
While Gilbert says he chose to race, there was the added pressure of a struggle for points to keep the team in the WorldTour for 2023. The Belgian squad is in a race to keep its place in cycling’s top tier and risks demotion if it cannot accumulate enough points by the end of the year.
Lotto Soudal needs to be among the top 18 teams to be assured of a place in the WorldTour for 2023, but the team is currently outside of this threshold. The points are tallied from this year and the previous two seasons, which means that the team has a lot of catching up to do after a few, lean years.
The race for points means that riders have had to spread themselves thinly to race as much as possible.
“We have no choice. There is a lot of pressure within the squad to race. For example, Tim Wellens had to go to France immediately after the Brabantse Pijl to race there,” Gilbert explained. “The team is in a major stress situation around the points. (to stay in the WorldTour, ed.) There is no longer a long-term vision.
“We live from week to week, almost from day-to-day. There is a lot of pressure. It’s true: you might say quitting and taking the time to recover is the better option, but in the meantime, we live on hope. Although we may have to say in a month that it was a mistake.”
‘Anything is possible’ for Vermeersch
Though Gilbert is a former champion, it will be last year’s runner-up Vermeersch that will assume the role of leader for Lotto Soudal this weekend. Vermeersch secured a breakthrough result with his second-place last year behind Sonny Colbrelli, beating Mathieu van der Poel in the process.
The 23-year-old’s return to the classics has not been the dream he may have hoped for with crashes and mechanicals hampering his chances. While he’s hoping for a change in fortunes, he says he’s not putting pressure on himself to score big Sunday.
“I haven’t been able to show myself yet and that’s a bit disappointing,” he said. “Unfortunately, I came into the picture a lot in a bad way, every time due to falls or bad luck. I also struggled with back problems and that is annoying. Bad luck, falling, and not being able to show you. There’s not much I can do about it, and I have to learn to deal with that bad luck. Hopefully, the tide will turn soon.
“It’s not that I suddenly have to save my spring in Roubaix, that it has to happen ‘now.’ The season is still long and I am still young. I will have many more opportunities in the spring. The past few weeks have been frustrating, but there’s not much I can do about it. I start with an anything-is-possible mentality.”