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MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (VN) — It’s something that will both carry and haunt Philippe Gilbert as he presses forward in his career: the Ardennes week sweep in 2011.
Gilbert (BMC Racing) won the three hilly classics that constitute “Ardennes week” in one fell swoop that year, the first and only rider to do so since Davide Rebellin in 2004. Since then, Gilbert has won a world championship in the road race, but has not attained his previous level, by any measure. It’s a cross the Belgian must bear now, that of supreme expectation.
He won Brabantse Pijl just days ago, a tilt of momentum into Amstel, La Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Gilbert is, has been, a winner. But can he get back to the Gilbert of old?
“It’s nice to win again. It’s nice to win a spring race, you know? It’s the first one with BMC. It’s been a long time. I’ve been training a lot. So it’s nice,” he told the media before Amstel.
Amstel is a racer’s race: There is hardly a straight second of road, and the course is littered with sharp climbs and sharper descents. Right, left, up, down. In theory, it suits a puncheur like Gilbert, and he won his rainbow stripes on this same exact finish — a slightly downhill stretch of road 1.8 kilometers long after the steep ascent of the Cauberg.
“I like this race. I like this upcoming week. I’ve had some success in the race for sure. I’d like to have [more] also this year and in the future. I like it — it’s technical. I think everything is possible. It makes it special,” he said.
Of course, there’s a big difference between Pijl and Amstel.
“Sunday’s the WorldTour race. The best riders in the world. The best teams in the world. The race is also 60km more. So all this, it makes a big, big difference,” Gilbert said.
The BMC team scouted the Amstel parcours to get a feel for how the team should ride it. It’s likely Amstel will see a long break, and big teams will try to slip riders in to avoid working. The bendy nature of the course, narrow roads, and the ever-billowing winds can make this race very, very tricky.
“It’s nice to be there with the team. We can all talk about the roads, the direction of the wind. Especially for Sunday’s race it’s really important. It’s nice to be together on the race. Cycling is all about being a team. If you are more together you can have a better team … everything comes automatic, and that’s the goal, also, of this kind of recon,” Gilbert said.
In a way, Gilbert now finds himself in a bit of a sweet spot. Coming off a win, but without the burden of 2012 in the rainbow stripes.
“It’s motivation, but in a way, I don’t want to be the super favorite for the next races,” he said. “I know I’m good. I have a good team. But I know also that other teams are really good and have good riders. I will be one contender for sure, because I’m always there in the final of Amstel.”
There’s just one more day now until the sport learns who’s “there” in the Amstel final this year, and who will carry even more weight into the next two races.