“I was good [in early races] but I didn’t feel really strong,” Gilbert said. “The feeling was not like last year.”
Is Gilbert trying to throw his rivals off his scent? Or is he really feeling a touch off his winning form of 2017 when he made a heroic solo attack that meant he would never have to pay for a beer again in Belgium?
We’ll find out Sunday.
The 35-year-old joined his teammates Friday afternoon for a pre-Flanders press conference at the Quick-Step headquarters. Officials and VIPs mingled with former Quick-Step luminaries such as Paolo Bettini, Oscar Freire, Andrea Tafi, and Johan Museeuw as the sponsor celebrated 20 years backing Patrick Lefevere’s team.
Of all of Lefevere’s big wins, last year’s with Gilbert was one of the best. Gilbert uncorked a long-distance attack to surprise everyone. A determined chase featuring Sagan, Van Avermaet, and Oliver Naesen ended in a crash and assured Gilbert the victory. When asked if they could have caught him, Gilbert only answered, “The winner is always right.”
Gilbert is hoping to get it right one more time Sunday. Last year’s victory was seen as a comeback of sorts for Gilbert, who languished a bit during five years at BMC. Despite winning a world title and other important races, he was winless in the monuments until he joined Lefevere at Quick-Step.
It was a phone call in the summer of 2016 that set the wheels in motion for Gilbert to move from BMC to Quick-Step for 2017, and eventually win last year’s Ronde in spectacular fashion.
“I’ve known Philippe since he was 12 years old, but we could never work out a deal,” Lefevere said. “One day he called me and said, ‘I want to race for you.’ I replied that it would be a short negotiation, ‘I don’t have money to pay you.’ He said it wasn’t a question of money but of ambition.”
Lefevere asked Gilbert how much he wanted to get paid, who quickly countered with a price and a bonus structure. Lefevere came back with an offer via email at 11 p.m. At eight in the morning, Gilbert called back to approve. “It was the shortest and most sincere negotiation of my career,” Lefevere said.
Gilbert is clearly happy at Quick-Step. After the big Flanders win, Gilbert signed on for two more seasons with Quick-Step through 2019. He’s racing Paris-Roubaix for just the second time of his career next month as part of his quest to win all five monuments. Gilbert came up short at Milano-Sanremo in March, and said Friday he’s not looking ahead to Roubaix just yet.
So far in the spring classics, he’s been showing good form, with second at E3 Harelbeke. In Gent-Wevelgem, he took huge turns to set up the mass gallop where teammate Elia Viviani was second. How good will he be Sunday?
“I was ready, but these races were like the last trainings and preparation,” Gilbert said of Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. “At the end I was in the final and I was working a lot for the team. In my eyes that is what is important.”
Gilbert insists he’s a team player and will ride with the “Wolf Pack” ethic that’s proven so successful so far. With Sunday’s longer distance at 266km, Gilbert is hoping it’s his turn.
“You can see we are all united. Everyone is focused, everyone speaks not for himself but for the team,” Gilbert said. “The most important is that one of can win. Of course everyone hopes it will be himself.”
Gilbert knows he’s in pole position to win another Flanders title. As he said about Quick-Step’s all-for-one, one-for-all attitude: “The team is very competitive. We are always fighting to be the best. And if you’re the best on this team, you have a very good chance of winning.”