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Gilbert ready for another classics run at age 36

The Belgian will kick off the classics season at Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which takes place in the Flanders region of his home country.

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A hungry and motivated Philippe Gilbert (Deceuncinck-Quick-Step) returns to home roads this weekend as the veteran superstar is out to prove he’s still a winner.

Of course, a rider with Gilbert’s palmares has nothing to prove, but a winner does need to keep piling on the Ws to keep that status.

Gilbert, 36, has already won early in 2019 and is expecting big things in this classics season. Just days ahead of the Belgian calendar opener at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Gilbert is an aging warrior with some battles still left in his legs as the spring classics season ramps up.

“I love that race, I’ve won it twice,” Gilbert said of Omloop. “It was the first big win of my career, and it was such strong emotion. It’s a unique ambiance because it’s the first race in Belgium. There’s a lot of media, a lot of emotion — it’s a special race.”

Gilbert comes into the season hungry for the big victory that was missing during his 2018 campaign that saw him playing kingmaker across Quick-Step’s dominating spring classics campaign. The team won 73 times in 2018, but Gilbert was never first across the line during the spring classics — yet his presence was a deciding factor in nearly every race he started. So much so he helped former teammate Niki Terpstra take big wins at E3 Harelbeke and Tour of Flanders.

With Terpstra now riding for rival Direct Energie, Gilbert can expect even more leadership opportunities this year as he captains a young and hungry squad.

Gilbert got off to a winning start, taking a stage at the Tour de la Provence in his season debut in southern France last week. That confirms that it’s all systems go with the spring classics set to start this weekend in Belgium.

“The motivation is always there,” he said. “Only the victory counts. It’s important to win. The condition is good and I had a good winter with good training blocks.”

The win in France — the 74th of his career that stretches back to 2003 — bodes well not only for Gilbert’s 2019 campaign but it also confirmed that he has fully recovered from his horror crash at the Tour de France last July.

Gilbert toppled over the barrier coming down the descent off the notorious Col de Portet-d’Aspet with about 60km to go in the 16th stage across the Pyrénées. Incredibly, Gilbert scrambled back on his bike to finish the stage and even stood on the finish podium as the day’s most aggressive rider. He later pulled out when he realized he had a fractured patella. Gilbert came back earlier than expected and raced to the lone victory of his bittersweet 2018 season at his comeback race, September’s GP d’Isbergues.

Gilbert knows all too well that a crash like that could end a career in an instant.

“That victory meant a lot,” Gilbert said. “It was important for me to race [last year] so I could have a higher level over the winter to go into the spring classics at a good level. It was my first race back after the injury, and my first win.”

Flash forward six months, and Gilbert is about to embark on another classics campaign. After racing Omloop on Saturday, he is slated to race Le Samyn and Paris-Nice before diving into the northern classics. Similar to last year, Gilbert will race from Milano-Sanremo all the way through Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Gilbert’s ambitions are as big as always, and he’s still holding out to complete cycling’s monument sweep. With three of the five monuments already on his palmares — Giro di Lombardia, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Tour of Flanders — Gilbert still dreams of matching history. Only Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, and Rik Van Looy have won all five.

“That’s no secret,” Gilbert told La Provence. “After winning Flanders, winning all five became more realistic. I still have two to go, but I admit it’s complicated.”

Gilbert is doubly motivated for Milano-Sanremo, where he’s twice finished on the podium, and Paris-Roubaix, which he’s only raced twice, in the two final missing pieces of the monument sweep. Gilbert said a win like Vincenzo Nibali’s daring raid in 2018 gives him hope for Sanremo, while Roubaix is a race in which he believes he can be an even bigger factor.

“Roubaix is the race I am focusing more on,” he said. “I really want to shine in the ‘Hell of the North.’ It’s a special race, but fun. There are so many twists and turns, and it changes constantly.”

A fully recovered and healthy Gilbert returns to 2019 motivated and determined to win the season’s most important races. In fact, that’s what drives him further into a career that shows no signs of slowing down. He vows to keep racing so long as he knows that he can be competitive on the major dates on the calendar.

“I will stop when I know I cannot win the big races,” Gilbert said. “But when it comes that I’ve done everything to win and I can only manage 10th at a race like Flanders, well then it’s time to think. One doesn’t want to become ridiculous. One must know when to stop and it’s a luxury to choose the moment to hang up the bike. I want to make that decision myself.”

It’s a contract year for Gilbert, and with his health and his motivation showing no signs of slowing down, fans should expect to see Belgium’s biggest superstar a factor in every race he starts. It all begins Saturday with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium’s Flanders region. The classics season begins, and Gilbert is ready to light things up.