After focused offseason, Gilbert targets spring treble

After sub-par classics run in 2012, world champion Gilbert aims for spring treble at San Remo, Flanders and Liege

EKE, Belgium (VN) — Philippe Gilbert had one good month last year, but it was perfectly timed to help everyone forget that the rest of his season was full of frustration and disappointment.

Gilbert (BMC Racing) promises to come out guns-a-blazing in his world champion’s season, with an ambitious calendar to match his confidence.

“Winning the world championship was a dream come true, but the start of the season was complicated. I had some health problems and I couldn’t get in top shape,” Gilbert said during Friday’s team presentation. “I always knew it would come around if I kept working, but we look at 2012 as a lesson learned. I start the 2013 on a stronger base.”

Gilbert showed up looking fit and trim on a cold, blustery Friday afternoon at a new BMC concept store here.

Rather than hit the discos every night, Gilbert kept an eye on his fitness over the offseason. He took two full weeks off the bike, but continued to train lightly throughout November and December while tending to the demands of being world champion in cycling-crazed Belgium.

“A good season is built in the winter,” he said. “I haven’t been sick. I haven’t crashed, touch wood. I go into the season full of confidence. I cannot wait to race and get some results.”

Gilbert, 30, will have plenty of chances to show off the rainbow jersey.

His debut will come later this month at the Tour Down Under, followed by the Tour of Oman. Paris-Nice will be his road to Milan-San Remo, followed by a heavy classics schedule that includes all the major races, with the major exclusion of Paris-Roubaix.

“It’s too dangerous to risk a crash,” Gilbert said of Roubaix. “I prefer to try to win (the Tour of) Flanders or San Remo. Roubaix … someday.”

After the classics, Gilbert will take a break and reload for a likely start in Tour de France. With the rainbow jersey, it’s hard to imagine Gilbert racing anywhere else this summer. Defending his world title in Italy will be his second major goal.

“I am a man for the classics, not stage races. I dream of winning Milan-San Remo, Flanders and Liège. If I could do that while in the rainbow jersey, well … a dream!” he said. “Those are the races that are on my radar. The rest of the season, we can consider later.”

One person who knows the weight of the rainbow jersey is teammate and friend Thor Hushovd, who won in 2010 and had his own struggles while wearing the world champion stripes.

Hushovd and Gilbert both live in Monaco, where they train together almost daily, riding up the steep climbs along the Mediterranean Coast or rolling along the flats into Italy.

“He looks whiter on the bike now,” Hushovd said, joking about Gilbert’s rainbow stripes set against a white BMC Racing jersey. “He’s still the same guy. Nothing’s changed. He loves to race his bike.”

Hushovd had a word of advice for his friend and training partner: stay focused.

“I told him, ‘keep focused on the right things on the bike and not get distracted,’” Hushovd said. “The most important thing is to enjoy being good in the rainbow jersey. It’s a very special sensation.”

Gilbert seems to have taken that advice to heart. While pressured over the winter by the adoring Belgian media, Gilbert admitted he turned down as many offers as he accepted.

“I had a busy winter, especially with requests for interviews, but I didn’t say yes to everyone,” he said. “I wanted to find a balance. I wanted to keep training, but also enjoy the jersey with my family and friends.”

Evasive on Armstrong

When VeloNews asked Gilbert about the ongoing Lance Armstrong scandal, the world champion didn’t have much to say.

“I would rather be talking about our generation, the new cycling, than talk about (Armstrong),” Gilbert said. “It’s his problem.”

Gilbert admits it’s hard to ignore the news that’s rocked cycling over the past several months, but said it’s unfair to paint today’s peloton with the same brush as during Armstrong’s reign.

“It’s certainly not good for us today,” he said. “I can understand that people are angry, but that was a long time ago. Cycling has changed. It has nothing to do with us.”