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Philippe Gilbert on Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert: ‘They are not afraid to attack’

Veteran Belgian keen to take it to new generation of classics stars as he enters pivotal season to finish off his 'monument sweep.'

Philippe Gilbert is seeing his crown as the “king of the classics” come under attack from a new generation led by Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel.

The veteran Belgian is one win away at Milano-Sanremo to becoming just the fourth rider to win all five of cycling’s monuments. And he knows if he’s going to have success this spring, he will have to go straight through the emerging duo of van der Poel and van Aert.

“It’s interesting to see those guys,” Gilbert told VeloNews. “They are not scared to attack, and they do not wait.”

Also read: Philippe Gilbert riding into the unknown

Van der Poel is already hot out of the gate in 2021, underscored by his dramatic victory at Strade Bianche. Van Aert was fourth in his season debut on the white roads of Tuscany, and is expected to grow into form this week at Tirreno-Adriatico to be in top shape to defend his title at Milano-Sanremo on March 20.

Gilbert is relishing the opportunity to match his abilities against today’s rising classics stars.

“That’s the way I like to race,” Gilbert said. “I hope I will be able to join them in some nice and long attacks and then see who will win. It’s going to be interesting for everyone.”

Optimistic ahead of historic run at ‘monument sweep’

The 38-year-old Gilbert will lead a deep Lotto-Soudal squad into this year’s spring classics. A confirmed winner across all terrain, the Belgian riders is one of the few versatile enough to win such races as Il Lombardia and Liège-Bastogne-Liège as well as Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

Battling back from a knee injury, Gilbert told VeloNews this week at Paris-Nice that he hopes to be firing at all cylinders in time for Sanremo and the upcoming major dates on the spring calendar.

“I am happy with my form right now because I am coming back from far,” Gilbert said Wednesday. “It was a special season for everyone [last year], but for me, it was very special with the crash. We will see when I will be at my best. It’s not now, but it’s coming.”

Also read: Mathieu van der Poel and his 1,000-watt attack at Strade Bianche

So far in 2021, Gilbert is showing hints that he will be back at his best in what could be one of the best and last chances to shine on the classics. At his season debut at Étoile de Bessèges, Gilbert punched to fifth-place on the tough classics-style stage 3, and later clocked in fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in what was a rare bunch sprint finale in the Belgian opener.

Racing this week at Paris-Nice, Gilbert has a packed spring calendar that hits all the major dates from Milano-Sanremo through Tro-Bro Léon in France.

Speaking to VeloNews last month, Gilbert said he sadly accepts that with the ongoing health restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic that he might never race again in front of the public. At least for this spring, most of the major dates will be contested ” behind closed doors” without fans being allowed to line the racecourse.

“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.

“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. “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.”