One of this summer’s most controversial Tour de France exclusions could have a silver lining for Philippe Gilbert.
The Deceuninck-Quick-Step superstar roared to victory Thursday in emphatic fashion in a very hard stage at the Vuelta a España that sees the veteran Belgian in fine form just weeks ahead of the world championships.
This year the worlds is held on a hilly course in Yorkshire, which could be favorable to Gilbert.
“I worked hard to be ready for the Tour de France. My form was excellent, but then I had to drop everything and stop,” Gilbert said. “I found motivation by thinking about the chance I had to be world champion this year. I thought about September 29 — that was motivation to get back on form.”
Gilbert’s stock skyrocketed after his impressive victory Thursday out of a breakaway in the hilly country of Spain’s Basque Country. Gilbert powered away from an elite group of attackers that didn’t gel until nearly two hours into the stage, reflecting just how hard-fought the 171km stage to Bilbao was. Gilbert was already active in early breakaways in this Vuelta, and let his worlds intentions be known Thursday in a victory that counted for his 10thc areer grand tour stage win.
“I’m feeling better here on the Vuelta,” he said. “Mentally, that was complicated [to miss the Tour]. Afterwards, I had to start again and go through that process and make all those sacrifices to do all the necessary work to be in form. My timing is good, and I think I will be on form the worlds.”
Gilbert was in the headlines in late June when it was revealed he would be left off the team’s Tour roster in what many saw as a snub for the popular Ardennes rider. With the Tour starting in Brussels, the Roubaix champion wanted to be there. Team politics got in the way, however, and with Gilbert later confirming a move to rival Lotto-Soudal on a three-year contract, Gilbert unhappily watched from home.
Ever the professional, Gilbert knew that sulking would not help anyone. He returned to racing in late July in Italy and carried worlds-worthy form into the Vuelta.
Missing the Tour could be a blessing in disguise for Gilbert, who won the world title in 2012.
“I’m thinking above all about the worlds and then Lombardia afterwards, he said. “I’ve won Lombardia twice, and each time, I didn’t do the Tour de France.”
At 37, Gilbert is certainly not slowing down. Much like Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who won the rainbow jersey last fall at 38, Gilbert has the wile and legs to continue to be competitive in every race he starts. Gilbert’s won three times this season, including his dramatic victory at Roubaix that now gives him four of the five so-called monuments on his palmares. Only Milano-Sanremo has escaped his clutch.
Per the powerful Belgian selection for Yorkshire, Gilbert is counting on being a protected rider.
“I haven’t had a lot of contact with Rik [Verbrugghe, Belgian national coach] but I’m confident in his tactics,” Gilbert said. “He knows my qualities, we trained together a lot when I lived in Belgium. He knows he can have confidence in me. I wouldn’t say [I should be] a sole leader, but one of the leaders, yes.”
In fact, Gilbert looks no further than Valverde as example to follow for Yorkshire. And in a time when younger riders are having ever more impact on the WorldTour, Gilbert and Valverde are showing that experience also counts in the peloton.
“Valverde is an example for everyone, he had knee problems like me and he came back and won the worlds,” Gilbert said. “I had a fracture and came back to win Paris-Roubaix so it’s a similar story.”
Gilbert is hoping the story has a similar ending in a few weeks’ time in northern England. Thursday’s demonstration at the Vuelta proved he will line up as one of the five-star favorites.