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LIEGE, Belgium (VN) — Time is running out for Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and his quest to win a spring classic in the world champion’s jersey.
It all comes down to Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège for Gilbert, who hails from the Wallonne region of Belgium and wants nothing more than to win his favorite race of the year in the rainbow jersey.
“I am motivated more than ever to win Liège while wearing this special jersey,” Gilbert said before the team presentation Saturday. “It would be a dream, but we want to make it a reality. We are ready.”
The world champion is under intense pressure to win on “home roads” after a frustrating classics season marked by a close call with a second-place result at Brabantse Pijl (Brabant Arrow) and a fifth at Amstel Gold Race.
Thousands of fans are already camped out on Le Redoute climb to cheer on their hometown hero, who grew up in Remouchamps, a town right at the base of Liège’s most famous climb.
Fans are calling their encampment “Philippe-ville” and it should reach pandemonium by the time the peloton hits the narrow climb Sunday afternoon.
Gilbert remains winless so far in the 2013 season but he’s been close, with a third-place finish at a stage at the Santos Tour Down Under, a runner-up in the penultimate stage at Paris-Nice, and the abovementioned Brabantse Pijl result.
Gilbert, however, has been well off his superb form of 2011, when he swept all three of the Ardennes classics. Despite skipping the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) to race the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) to catch up on form, some suggest that Gilbert is still a touch overweight.
Though he lacked the punch to finish off Flèche Wallonne, where he was 15th, Gilbert was the strongest up the Cauberg last Sunday at Amstel Gold Race.
Though he might not be as strong as he was when he won the world title in September, he will certainly be among the protagonists in the late going Sunday.
BMC teammate Brent Bookwalter said the team is confident and motivated for Sunday’s battle.
“We have full faith in him,” Bookwalter told VeloNews. “One thing I’ve noticed with him, he takes a lot of pride and joy in what he does, and he wants to honor the rainbow jersey in his home region. He knows what he’s capable of, and we are there to support him. If it all comes together, that would be mean winning.”
BMC’s classics hopes are all on Gilbert’s shoulders now. The team struggled in the northern classics this year, when Greg Van Avermaet was the most consistent, capped by a third-place finish at Ghent-Wevelgem.
A victory Sunday would certainly take the pressure off Gilbert and BMC.
If the pressure to perform is impacting the team, it’s not showing. Gilbert continues to appear relaxed and puts his game face in the heat of the race.
“It’s not like we’re all walking on eggshells. We feel responsibility, but in a good way that motivates us,” Bookwalter said. “Since I’ve been teammates with him, he takes his racing and preparation very seriously, but he’s also relaxed and he enjoys it. He’s proven in the past that he can win any of these races.”
Changes in the course, however, will make Liège even more wide open and more difficult to control.
The decisive climb at Roche aux Falcons will not be used due to roadwork and a replacement climb at Colonster, though longer, is not nearly as steep.
“It’s going to be more tactical and therefore important to rely on your team. I’ve got confidence in them,” Gilbert said Friday in a press conference. “I see a group of 40-50 riders at the foot of Saint Nicholas. The last time toward Ans is always tricky enough, it’s difficult to maintain a lead of 10-15 seconds. It risks being tight.”
Further complicating things for Gilbert is that BMC is also racing the Ardennes without Cadel Evans and Tejay van Garderen. Evans competed in the Giro del Trentino to prepare for the Tour de France, while van Garderen returned to the U.S. for the birth of his first child.
The 30-year-old Gilbert has been known pull off big rides in the most important races, and Sunday’s Liège cannot get any bigger.