Gilbert dreams of win in rainbow debut

Belgian world champion dreams of winning at Lombardia in rainbow stripes

VIMERCATE, Italy (VN) — Philippe Gilbert has dreamt about winning his first race in the rainbow jersey on Saturday. BMC Racing’s Belgian arrived in Italy on Friday, one night before his debut race, the Giro di Lombardia.

“The race is different than when I last raced,” said Gilbert, who won the “Race of the Falling Leaves” in 2009 and 2010. “I arrived (Friday) and because I didn’t have time to recon the course, I went to my room so I could watch the last two hours on the internet.”

Gilbert met the press on Friday night for the first time since he won the world championship road race last Sunday in Valkenburg, Netherlands. It was a small gathering, with VeloNews the only English-speaking outlet.

Since he won the title, it has been mostly business and no play. After visiting his hometown in Aywaille, Gilbert travelled to his base in Monaco and went about training for his final race of the season, and the first in the distinctive rainbow bands. He will ride on a matching bike, wearing matching shoes and shorts on Saturday.

This year, the race starts in Bergamo and for the second year in a row, ends in Lecco. Along the way, the season’s fifth monument climbs Valcava, Sormano, Ghisallo and Villa Vergano. New this year, the race travels on a small side road up the Muro di Sormano, or the Wall, which hasn’t been used since the 1960s. The Muro di Sormano covers 1.7km and averages 17 percent, with only three switchbacks for respite.

Several big stars, including Milano-Torino winner Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) previewed the climb on Thursday. The meteo, however, shows rain for Saturday’s finale.

“They say there will be rain, which is a good thing for me,” Gilbert said. “I’m good in the descents and I have good tires to race on. Plus, I have a good week of training behind me.”

His grey tracksuit was appropriate for the outskirts of Milan. There will be a sea of colors on Saturday, though, going up the Muro. The organizers cut out the climb after 1962 because fans were too friendly, giving pushes to nearly all the riders.

“It was different in those times. They had the big gears, 42, but now we have 38- and 39-tooth rings,” Gilbert said. “I’ll also talk to [teammates] Alessandro Ballan and Mauro Santambrogio, who lives near the base, to get a better idea. The climb, however, still comes early into the race and even if you are behind, you have time to make it back to the front.”

Nibali escaped solo last year on the Ghisallo, but a chase group led by Sky closed his advantage. Olivier Zaugg (RadioShack-Nissan) made it clear in a small group and won in Lecco. You do not need to tell Gilbert that, however.

“There’s always a wind heading into Lecco,” he said. When VeloNews asked for clarification, he continued, “I’ve studied it. There is always a headwind going into the final kilometers.”

Team manager John Lelangue sat on Gilbert’s left in Friday’s meeting with the press. He is used to working with world champions; he signed Aussie Cadel Evans to the team after he won the worlds in Mendrisio in 2009. Ballan and teammate Thor Hushovd both wear the rainbow armbands of former world champions. After holding Gilbert out of Thursday’s Gran Piemonte, Lelangue is cautiously optimistic that the team can take a win home in its final big one-day race of the year.

“Contador is the favorite, though. He was training a lot and hasn’t been racing so much this year, two months,” Gilbert said. “It makes a difference at the end of the season when some of us have already raced two grand tours.”

Gilbert posed for photos at the end of Friday’s session, near the team’s version of the rainbow jersey that he only received when he arrived to Italy.

“It is going to be a bit of a special day for me,” he said, “the first time in this jersey.”