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Philippe Gilbert: ‘I think I will finish my career without any public’

Belgian star expects to retire 'behind closed doors' and says riders are missing the energy and thrills that come with fans cheering them on.

Philippe Gilbert loves racing for the public. And he feeds off the energy of the crowds that line the bergs and cobbles of the northern classics.

Yet the veteran Belgian star doesn’t expect he’ll ever race in front of the massive crowds at races like the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix again in his career.

Gilbert has put a finishing date on his career at the end of 2022, and he’s not overly optimistic that the sport will see a return to normal before he hangs up his cleats.

“I think I will finish my career without any public, because I don’t believe it will be better before two years,” the Lotto-Soudal star told VeloNews. “We miss the crowds at these races. We just hope it will come back soon.”

Gilbert, among several stars racing last weekend at the Étoile de Bessèges, said he’s among the type of cyclist that pushes harder and reacts differently when there are tens of thousands of fans lining the racecourse. The empty roads of Europe’s top races during the coronavirus era mean it’s a different kind of feeling for the racers.

“Especially for me, I am always better when there is a lot of public, because I like this atmosphere,” Gilbert said from the Étoile de Bessèges lastweek. “I think a lot of riders cannot give these extra watts when there is not this public next to the roads. As an athlete, this is also what we like, and it’s going to be another ‘special’ year.”

Holding out hope for the classics in spring

Gilbert raced without cheering crowds during the Étoile de Bessèges in France last week Photo: James Startt

The coronavirus pandemic continues to reach into 2021, and despite the introduction of a new wave of vaccines, no one expects a return to pre-COVID “normality” ahead of the racing season’s biggest races. Several early-season races in Spain and Portugal are already canceled or postponed, along with other international dates in Australia, South America and the Middle East, including the WorldTour openers at Santos Tour Down Under and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.

Last week, UCI president David Lappartient said the rest of the WorldTour will remain as it stands on the racing calendar, with the UAE Tour scheduled to start February 21, meaning that the spring classics are expected to be contested on their traditional dates later this spring.

Officials are telling teams that the spring classics in Belgium look promising, with the caveat that they will yet again be contested “behind closed doors,” without fans or the heaving VIP tents that are such an integral part of the Belgian classics. With some French races being contested this month, many are also hopeful that Paris-Roubaix — canceled last fall from its rescheduled date — will be raced in April with the first women’s edition as well.

There is concern in the Netherlands, where officials are taking a stricter view on public events, that the Amstel Gold Race might be canceled. Race officials are proposing a shortened, 18km closed circuit as a compromise solution to limit the risk to public health in the hope that health authorities will greenlight the race, Dutch media reported.

For Gilbert, returning to competition following a knee injury last season, racing without the public cheering from alongside the roadside simply isn’t the same.

“It’s strange for everyone to race without the public,” he said. “I watched the classics on TV, and it was really weird to see the final at Flanders without anyone, and just these two riders coming to the sprint for maybe one of the nicest wins by Mathieu van der Poel of his life without public. Even if you get this win, it will never be the same winning without this public amazing public we are used to seeing at the classics.”

Teams and riders are grateful that much of the 2020 calendar was completed, and there’s quiet optimism that cycling’s “race bubble” will save much of 2021 as well.

Gilbert — a winner of four of cycling’s five monuments — said riders have no choice but to only grin and bear it.

“We missed that last year, we miss the crowds,” Gilbert said. “We just hope it will come back soon. Maybe it will be two or three more years, so for sure we will miss the crowds again this year.”