Currently enjoying his best spring campaign for many years, as shown by a stage win and overall victory in this week’s Three Days of De Panne, Philippe Gilbert will begin the Tour of Flanders as one of the top favourites.
His De Panne performances plus runner-up slots in the Dwars Door Vlaanderen and the E3 Harelbeke see him rank alongside Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet as a big favourite for Sunday’s race, and mark a return to form for the Belgian rider.
So, what’s changed? Over the winter Gilbert moved from the BMC Racing Team to the QuickStep Floors squad and now seems back to his best form. CyclingTips asked him on Thursday in the post-race press conference how that move has helped him to step up a level.
“I am happy to be part of this new team,” Gilbert replied. “We have good support, good material and a really high level of teammates – really motivated and professional.”
So does he feel more motivated this season?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I am feeling really good in my skin, you know? So this helps for sure.”
In the past some have suggested that Gilbert is a rider who becomes too relaxed when he is on multi-year contracts, and who seems to step it up a level when he is up for a renewal. This year he is said to be on a lower basic salary than before, but one which has big bonuses built in. He is also on a one year deal.
However when asked by another journalist if that one year contract was a big part of his motivation, he sought to downplay such suggestions.
“I have signed two times three year contracts in my life,” he stated. “I was successful from the first year. For me it didn’t change anything in my approach and my motivation. Of course it is always a risk when you have only a one year contract. But in terms of my motivation, it didn’t change anything.”
Still, it seems clear that he is riding more strongly with QuickStep Floors than he did recently with the BMC Racing Team. Is the Belgian team better than the American squad, at least for him?
“I don’t know which is better. It is just different,” he said. “It is a different team, different culture, different country. Sponsors and everything. It is just different and I feel good here.
“I won’t say anything bad about BMC. I did five years there. I won some nice races. World champion, Classics, stages in the Grand Tours. I am really happy also about this experience, but now I found something new and I am happy about it.”
‘It is a very strong group’
The QuickStep Floors squad will head into Sunday’s race under pressure to perform. It’s been caught out tactically in some of the buildup races and the riders will know that it is essential that they get things right in Flanders and Roubaix. Those two Classics are amongst the most important targets for the team each season, and performance there is crucial.
Even if they will be up against riders such as world champion Sagan and Olympic champion Van Avermaet, Gilbert points out that the squad has a strength in depth which could well give it an edge.
“It would be an error to just focus on me, because it is a very strong group,” he warns. “There are many riders who can finish off the work. There are riders who are relatively fast. It is sure that if some are against Sagan in a sprint, there is little chance, but against Boonen or Stybar, it is another story…”
Of those on the team, Boonen is perhaps under the most pressure to perform. He will retire after Roubaix and is heading into the final events of a long and successful pro career. He’s been solid in the build-up to the Classics, but hasn’t shown the same form thus far as Gilbert has.
Whatever happens in terms of Boonen’s own challenge, the De Panne winner is confident that they will work together well for the common interest of the team.
“With Tom it is always easy,” he stated. “He is fine with everything. You saw it in San Remo. We didn’t have to ask him anything, he just said by himself that he would go and ride for you guys and hoping that some one of us win. In the end we got third with Alaphilippe.
“It is said enough about Tom Boonen – he is a big talent but also a big team player.”
That may well be the case, but it’s clear that Boonen wants to do more in his final races than just play a team role. Does Gilbert see him being able to step up a level for Flanders and Roubaix?
“Yes, for sure,” he said. “I think he did all the sacrifices for these next two weekends. I am sure he will be there.”
However, as much as Boonen wants to win, so too does Gilbert. Several years ago there was talk about him trying to achieve victory in all of the monuments in cycling. He’s won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy, and also taken non-monument races such as the Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne.
Winning Flanders or Roubaix would move him a step closer to that goal of all five monuments. He’s twice been third in Flanders in the past, but has a career-best result of only 52nd in Roubaix.
Still, he feels secure in his own versatility.
“I have already won Lombardy, Liege and Paris-Tours. They are races that are totally different. And Amstel also. But I am a rider who is pretty complete.
“I don’t have anything to prove. It is just for me.”