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World champion Philippe Gilbert downplays chances of winning Milano-Sanremo

BMC rider still looking for his first victory of 2013 after a slow start and says he's yet to hit his peak physical condition for the season

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LEON, Spain (VN) — Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) would love to have his first win of the 2013 season be at Sunday’s Milano-Sanremo.

The reigning world champion is winless so far this year, but he’s edging every closer to his season peak for the upcoming Ardennes classics.

Gilbert said despite wearing the rainbow jersey, he’s far from the favorite for the Italian classic.

“There are 20 or 30 names and I am just another,” Gilbert told a handful of journalists last weekend at Paris-Nice at the team’s hotel. “The most important thing is [to] not be a favorite, but to have the legs.”

And does he have legs to win San Remo?

By his own measure, he’s not in top condition yet. He was third in a stage at the Santos Tour Down Under and was beaten by Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in a long sprint in stage 6 at Paris-Nice.

The idea is to hit ideal weight and condition during the middle of next month, with his ultimate goal of winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the world champion jersey.

“You do not have to be in top form to win San Remo,” he said. “I am not at 100 percent. My peak will come for the Ardennes. If a few things go my way, I will try.”

Gilbert described San Remo as a “casino” and said the race is highly unpredictable despite it being called the “sprinter’s classic.” Although a small bunch sprint is typically in the cards, anything can happen in the season’s longest race that measures 298 kilometers. Just ask Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) about that, who won out of a three-man breakaway last year that pulled clear over the Poggio climb.

“Many things have to happen to win San Remo,” Gilbert said. “If there’s an attack on the Poggio, it depends on which riders are there and if there are others coming from behind. The weather and wind is also a factor. It’s like any classic. You have to be fast.”

If San Remo is a casino, the odds-makers are being bullish, having pegged Gilbert’s chances at third at 15-to-1, behind Peter Sagan (2.5-to-1) and Cavendish (7-to-1).

Gilbert’s twice been third in “la classicissima.” In 2008, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) surprised the pack with his final-kilometer attack and Gilbert was second in the bunch sprint behind Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida). In 2011, just weeks before he swept the Ardennes classics, Matt Goss (Orica) won out of an eight-man group, with Cancellara taking second ahead of Gilbert.

BMC Racing confirmed its lineup Wednesday and Gilbert will share leadership with Thor Hushovd, with Daniel Oss and Greg Van Avermaet playing wildcard roles. American Taylor Phinney is also tipped to start.

“It’s good to have more than one leader, especially for a race like Milano-Sanremo,” BMC sport director John Lelangue said. “There are many decisive moments in the race. It’s one of the most marvelous classics but it’s also one of the hardest to win. At Liège, there might be five or six riders who can win. At San Remo, there can be 20 to 25 riders who can hope to win.”

Gilbert, who will bring the rainbow jersey to the Amgen Tour of California this year, says he feels the weight of the world title.

“I can tell that I am more of a marked man in the races. And the TV cameras follow me more,” he said. “The rainbow jersey also motivates me.”

The last reigning world champion to win San Remo was Giuseppe Saronni in 1983. Since then, many have fallen short. Mario Cipollini led the bunch in at 11 seconds behind a winning breakaway in 2003. Last year, Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) got gapped over the La Manie climb and did not finish.

Gilbert is keenly aware that all eyes will be on him, especially after his slow start in 2012 following his near-perfect 2011 season.

“I am a little better than I was this time last year,” Gilbert said with a laugh. “San Remo is a race that I dream about.”