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Gilbert puts Sanremo at center of 2020 spring ambitions

The Belgian star needs to win the elusive Italian classic to be join the elite club of sweeping all five of cycling's prestigious monuments

Philippe Gilbert moves into 2020 with a new team and familiar ambitions.

The 37-year-old Belgian star leaves behind three successful seasons at Deceuninck-Quick-Step to join Lotto-Soudal on a three-year deal. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Gilbert, who raced with the team from 2009-2011, one of the most productive periods of his career.

For Gilbert, entering the twilight of a career already packed with highlights, one race stands out: Milano-Sanremo.

“I am putting a lot of pressure on myself to win San Remo,” he told Cyclism’Actu. “It’s the one that I really want to win.”

Gilbert is the only active rider with realistic chances to complete cycling’s monument sweep. With his victory in Paris-Roubaix in April, he’s inched closer than any rider since Sean Kelly, who won four of the five monuments.

“It’s my dream to win San Remo,” he said. “I know it won’t be easy, but everyone said it wouldn’t be easy to win Flanders or Roubaix, and I’ve won both of them.”

With his move to Lotto-Soudal, he will be sharing leadership duties with John Degenkolb, a former San Remo and Roubaix winner, as well as targeting his chances in one-day races and stages. The spring classics are the first season goal.

Gilbert said it wasn’t his Tour de France snub that prompted him to leave Quick-Step, but rather a three-year contract with a chance to end his career on a Belgian team.

The monument “grand slam” is one of cycling’s most prestigious and most elusive goals. The five one-day races are among cycling’s longest, most difficult, and most prestigious titles. Winning all five is not easy. Only three riders — Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck and Rik Van Looy — have managed to pull it off.

Kelly won nine monuments during his prolific career, but could never manage to be first across the line at the Tour of Flanders despite finishing second on three occasions.

Gilbert has come closer than anyone since the Kelly era. Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara each won seven monuments, but Boonen never won beyond Flanders and Roubaix, while Cancellara added one San Remo win to his Flanders and Roubaix haul.

Gilbert is the rare rider in today’s ever specialized peloton who’s been able to flourish across the explosive climbs of the Ardennes and endure the punishing pavé of Flanders and Roubaix.

San Remo, perhaps the hardest monument to win because it’s often a reduced bunch sprint, has proven elusive for Gilbert. He’s twice finished third — in 2008 and 2011 — nearly a decade ago when Gilbert was younger and faster.

He knows it won’t be easy. Sanremo is not only a bit of a lottery, he also has Caleb Ewan, second in 2018, as his new teammate. For Gilbert to have chances, he would likely have to try to attack over the Poggio to distance the pure sprinters.

Adding another twist is the possibility that the Poggio won’t be part of next year’s San Remo course due to possible road works that could force a detour of the Italian monument. One possibility is to take the race a bit further inland to tackle the Pompeiana climb, which it toyed with using in 2014.

“San Remo is the kind of race that a lot of different riders can win,” he said, pointing out Vincenzo Nibali and Julian Alaphilippe as recent winners. “I can never say I cannot win it. I know it won’t be easy, but this really motivates me.”

Gilbert admits his Sanremo ambitions are a “crazy dream,” but with his new contract in pocket, he’s got three more chances to make history.