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DENIA, Spain — Some of his famous peers are packing it in, but don’t ask Philippe Gilbert about retirement. He’s having too much fun.
With the likes of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) entering their final season, the 33-year-old Gilbert (BMC Racing) doesn’t even have retirement on his radar.
“I don’t know when I’m going to stop,” Gilbert said during a media roundtable at BMC’s winter training camp. “Look at [Davide] Rebellin, he’s 45, and he’s still racing! So I could race another 10 years.”
Gilbert still packs enough star power to draw a half-dozen Belgian journalists to Spain’s Mediterranean coast to hear him speak (compatriot Greg Van Avermaet made it a 2-for-1 trip). He said his career trajectory has been different than Contador’s or Cancellara’s.
“Those two guys had a lot of success early. I had to wait a few more years before I got to the top level,” Gilbert pointed out. “I guess they had a lot of pressure in their lives, and they won a lot of big races, so maybe they have a different view of the sport. I feel as though I am just starting now.”
Gilbert, who turns 34 in July, insists he still has some unfinished business. A world champion in 2012 and the winner of the Ardennes treble in 2011, the Belgian superstar’s reputation is secure, but there are some races that he’d still like to win, including the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix. He’s twice been third in the Ronde (2009 and 2010), and he’s only raced Roubaix once, in 2007, and finished 52nd.
He was non-committal when pressed about if he will ride the northern classics this year, only confirming that he would not return to Roubaix in 2016. He seemed to leave the door open for Flanders, but his early-season focus is on Milano-Sanremo, another major race he’s never won (twice third, 2008 and 2011).
Gilbert still dreams big. A winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Giro di Lombardia, Gilbert said he’d like to complete the “monument” sweep, adding Sanremo, Flanders, and Roubaix to his quiver of wins to become just the fourth man in cycling history to do so. He’s still a long way from that goal, and time is running out.
“The other classics I haven’t won yet,” Gilbert said when asked what gives him motivation. “I miss Sanremo, Flanders and Roubaix, and I want to try those. I turn 34 next year, so it’s time.”
Gilbert certainly seems in no rush, especially in mid-December, with the next season still on the horizon. After a consistent but less-than-spectacular 2015 season that included two stage wins at the Giro d’Italia, Gilbert might be feeling the pressure to perform, especially in what will be a contract year.
Some have wondered if Gilbert has lost that winning edge. After his peak years from 2008 to 2011, when he swept the Ardennes classics, Gilbert has only won two major races; the 2012 world title and the 2014 Amstel Gold Race. In 2013, he only won one race, and last year, only four. By most standards, that wouldn’t matter as much, but when you’re one of the sport’s top riders, results are expected to come with the paycheck. Gilbert points out it’s become more difficult to win.
“It’s harder and harder, because every team is full with a lot of riders for the classics,” he said. “When you look at the bunch with 20km to go, you have at least one team with five guys, and before it was just two or three guys from one team. So when you go [attack], you have three or four guys chasing you, it’s hard to beat them. If it’s raining or very technical, it’s different, but if the weather is good or a headwind, it’s nearly impossible.”
Another box he would like to check is the Olympics. Gilbert’s already raced in two, but with a climber’s course on tap for Rio de Janeiro, he’s not even sure if he will race. The allure of the Olympics, however, is eternal.
“It’s bigger than anything,” Gilbert said of the Olympics. “If you get a medal, then everyone knows the importance of this. The impact is big, especially in a nation like Belgium, where we win a medal every 10 years. It’s really big to have a medal, even a bronze.”
Well into his prime, Gilbert insists he races for pleasure, not for a paycheck.
“It’s not business. In sport, if you take it only for money, it’s the wrong way,” he said. “Cycling is hard, and you have to push yourself to perform. I would not like to race if I was not fit. My goal has always been to be the best I can be.”
Age inevitably catches up. Gilbert admitted that he finds it harder to shed weight, saying when he was in his mid-20s, he could drop 3kg in a week. Now, almost a decade later, he says he must watch his diet much more closely.
Going into 2016, Gilbert insists he’s as hungry as ever for wins. They’re just harder to come by than they used to be.
Gilbert’s confirmed 2016 schedule
Clásica de Almería
Vuelta a Murcia
Ruta del Sol
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Amstel Gold Race