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Philippe Gilbert, Lotto-Soudal to ramp up season at Milano-Sanremo

Belgian classics specialist Philippe Gilbert still dreams of winning Milano-Sanremo — it is cycling’s only monument that he has yet to win.

“There are going to be so many unknowns,” Gilbert says about Milano-Sanremo

Belgian classics specialist Philippe Gilbert still dreams of winning Milano-Sanremo. After all, it is cycling’s only monument that he has yet to win. But he is not fixating on it this year, as it will be held just a week after the season re-starts after the five-months-long coronavirus shutdown.

“It is new for everyone to have Sanremo so late in the season,” Gilbert said in a press conference today organized by his Lotto-Soudal team. “It’s really hard to talk about expectations because it will be new for everyone this year and there are going to be so many unknowns.”

Traditionally, Milano-Sanremo is held in late March, and Gilbert has learned to hone his condition masterfully over the years, hitting his peak condition perfectly for whatever classic he is focusing on in a given year, be it the Amstel Gold Race — which he has won four times — or Paris-Roubaix, which he won last year in his second real attempt.

But this year, the great Italian race will be held on August 8, barely a week after the season is scheduled to restart. And Gilbert, like most professionals, will only have the shorter Strade Bianche in his legs.

“I think that the young guys will have an advantage getting the engine running quicker,” the 37-year old admits. “But the preparation is going to be the same for everyone and it is all going to be about what you do in training. But it’s still Sanremo and it will be the same scenario as it is every year because there are not many opportunities to attack. That said I think it will maybe even be faster.”

Gilbert, of course, knows the roads well. He has finished on the podium twice already, and a resident of Monaco, he rides the roads in neighboring Italy often. Riders like to scout out the exact spot where they can best attack on the famed Poggio, the final climb of the race. And Gilbert will certainly be in the mix. But he also knows that, if he fails to break clear, he can rely on ace Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan to carry the team colors in a field sprint.

Philippe Gilbert 2019 Tour de France
Caleb Ewan takes stage sixteen at the 2019 Tour de France. Photo: James Startt

And after the turmoil of the coronavirus crisis, Gilbert prefers to take the long look at the dense calendar, which packs three grand tours and all of cycling’s monuments into little more than three months. As a result, while Sanremo remains a dream, he is not fixating it this year. “No, my season is not based only on Milano-Sanremo and it is still possible to have a good season. I don’t have all of the pressure. I am not planning my life around Sanremo. It would be nice if I win of course but it won’t change my life if I don’t.”

From the coast of the Italian Riviera, Gilbert, along with Ewan, will then join the rest of the team’s Tour de France squad, a team that also includes Lotto stalwarts Tim Wellens, Thomas De Gendt along with recent recruit John Degenkolb.

Last year, the Belgian formation scored no less than four stage wins at the Tour, with Ewan winning three sprints and De Gendt scoring an impressive solo stage win on stage eight into Saint-Etienne, ahead of French riders Thibaut Pinot and Julian Alaphilippe. And according to team manager John Lelangue, they will only be satisfied if they match that score this year.

Ironically, Degenkolb, who won Sanremo in 2015, will not be at the start, and has instead opted to start racing at the Tour of Poland. “Sanremo was always a big highlight of the year for me and missing out this year is a big disappointment, but I see that going to the Tour of Poland and preparing the Tour de France is also very important,” the German said. I am a rider that needs races to get into race shape and when you look at the numbers, that is a really good way to prepare for the Tour. I actually made this decision to skip Sanremo this year. I will definitely I will miss it. But it is the price we will have to pay this year.”

But while their goals may be somewhat different, both Degenkolb and Gilbert are happy to be out training and have real races to focus little more than a month from now. “First happy to have a calendar,” Gilbert said. “That has given us all focus.”