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Philippe Gilbert riding into the unknown as career countdown continues

Belgian veteran is running out of time to complete monument sweep with uncertainty over knee injury proving another hurdle to jump.

Philippe Gilbert is in a race against time to complete his monument sweep.

The Belgian has no idea of his racing form after a knee injury torpedoed his 2020 season, yet despite the uncertainty, Gilbert is still on a mission to claim victory in perhaps the most unpredictable race of them all: Milano-Sanremo.

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“It’s my dream,” Gilbert said of La Classicissima on Monday.

“I don’t know if it’s possible this year but it’s my motivation,” he continued in a Zoom conference. “If I made all these sacrifices it’s to come back for that. It’s my motivation to go training every day to try and become stronger.”

Gilbert is set to start the penultimate season of his career this spring. The 38-year-old classics king is looking likely to retire when his contract expires at the close of next year, and he still has unfinished business with bike racing. Having won four of the five monuments, victory on the Via Roma would grant him entry to the elusive club of those to have taken a sweep of the prestigious races, and his time is running out, fast.

“I always think about Milano-Sanremo,” he said. “It’s so important and I know that if I can do that then it will change my career and my palmares.”

Gilbert crashed hard on the rain-slicked roads of Nice on the opening stage of the Tour de France last August, sustaining a knee injury that put an end to his ride in France and effectively called time on his entire season. The Lotto-Soudal supremo returned to racing after two weeks of recovery from his crash in Nice, but saw his year fizzle out ahead of time at the BinckBank Tour at the start of October.

Since then, the knee has continued to nag.

“It was much worse than expected. I really had to start over from scratch,” he said. “I can train almost pain-free now, but the injury was much worse than expected. I have lost a lot of muscle, including in my left leg. When I resumed my road training this winter, I reached the level of someone just starting to ride a bike. I had never experienced that before. ”

Gilbert spoke from a team training camp in Spain with his fellow Lotto-Soudal one-day racers. The easy ride of a January team meet-up was the first time he had spun his weakened leg alongside others.

“It is difficult to say anything about my condition,” he said. “I have mainly trained alone so far, today was the first time that I was on the road with a nice group of riders. I felt good, so that’s definitely a positive sign. But real racing is something else. That is why I am very careful to look ahead.”

Gilbert’s racing form remains a mystery. Training numbers and fitness tests mean nothing when in the whirlwind of a pro peloton, and the Belgian is hoping to refind his rhythm with a block of racing in France starting at La Marseillaise on January 31. From there, he has four weeks until the opening weekend of classics, and a further four weeks until the jewel he so covets, Milano-Sanremo.

After 16 appearances at La Classicissima, Gilbert has just two opportunities left to enter cycling’s monument hall of fame before hanging up his wheels. The Belgian is now in a race against time, first to sharpen his Via Roma sprint, and then to execute in a race that comes down to the finest of margins and most marginal of mistakes.

“I want to race again first and see if I can get into the finals with the best for the wins,” Gilbert said. “It’s hard to predict if I’ll be ready. I stopped in the Binck Bank Tour last year and since then I have never ridden a bicycle really fast again.”

The countdown is on.