World number one Philippe Gilbert has set out victory in the Olympic road race in London in July as his principal aim for 2012, insisting it is a bigger race than the world championship, and has also revealed that he has ambitions of being a future overall contender in the Tour de France.
Speaking to Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, the Belgian, who has moved to BMC Racing, also singled out Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders as two of his big targets in the coming season.
“I’d like to win a big Classic,” says Gilbert, despite having plenty of those among his palmarès, including the Ardennes hat-trick of the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège earlier this year.
“But I’m also very curious about riding the Tour alongside [defending champion Cadel] Evans,” he continues. “I want to get a close look to understand clearly how he prepares for the task and how he conducts himself in the race.
“We already rode the 2009 Vuelta together, when we were team mates at Silence-Lotto, and it was a great experience.”
Evans finished that race third overall behind Alejandro Valverde, a frustratingly slow neutral service wheel change at a crucial point of the race dealing a fatal blow to his chances of winning his first Grand Tour.
The Australian of course finished this year’s Tour de France in the maillot jaune, but it had been Gilbert who had worn the fabled garment following the first stage of the race, when he beat Evans himself to the line at Mont des Alouettes.
Following two medium mountain stages in the Massif Central, Gilbert remained in the top ten of the GC as the race headed towards its halfway point, and he believes that he has what it takes to be an overall contender in the years ahead.
“I started this year’s Tour in yellow and I finished very strongly. In future I’d like to aim for a GC position,” he says.
With next year’s 99th edition of the race starting with a Prologue, Gilbert’s highly unlikely to claim the first maillot jaune of that race, but with the Grand Départ being held in Liège, close to where he grew up, he will at least be guaranteed huge local support.
Gilbert rejects the idea that his new team is the strongest in the sport, pointing out that Sky, Liquigas and RadioShack Nissan also have some big names on their rosters.
He also insists that having team mates of the calibre of Evans, Alessandro Ballan and Thor Hushovd – all former world champions – as well as his compatriot Greg Van Avermaet, is a blessing rather than a curse.
He adds that reports of tension between former Omega Pharma-Lotto team mateVan Avermaet and himself have been exaggerated by the Belgian press.
Gilbert states that in the coming year, “I’d like to win Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders,” but adds that he also has ambitions of a second victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“I was born and I grew up on the Redoute,” he explains. “It would be a dream.”
The 29-year-old has come to dominate the Classics in a way that arguably no rider has managed since the days of Eddy Merckx. During the past four seasons, he has won the Amstel Gold Race (2010 and 2011), Paris-Tours (2008 and 2009) and the Giro di Lombardia (2009 and 2010) twice.
This year, he also added not only the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège to his growing list of successes, but also the Clasica de San Sebastian.
He has also achieved podium placings in Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem since 2008, but conspicuously there is one race he has avoided, a situation that won’t change in the coming season.
“Paris-Roubaix is very dangerous,” he maintains. “For now I don’t want to run the risk, but the right time may come in the future.”
Asked to name his three biggest rivals, Gilbert says that it’s an impossible task to choose between them. “It depends above all on which race,” he says.
“For the flatter Classics they are [Sylvain] Chavanel, [Tom] Boonen and [Fabian] Cancellara. For the hard Classics, [Samuel] Sanchez, [Joaquin] Rodriguez and [Alejandro] Valverde. Plus there’s [Peter] Sagan who goes strongly whatever the parcours and whose limits we don’t yet know.”
One big prize that has so far eluded Gilbert is the rainbow jersey – his best position was sixth at Mendrisio in 2009, while in Geelong 12 months later he launched a solo attack on the final lap, only to be brought back with 2 kilometres to ride ahead of Hushovd’s victory.
Gilbert is unequivocal, however, that next year’s world championship road race, which finishes just after the Cauberg climb where he has prevailed these past two years in the Amstel Gold Race, takes a back seat to London 2012 when asked to choose between the two.
“The Olympics, without a doubt. It’s very important because there are all the sports, all the strongest athletes in each discipline, people talk about it in every corner of the world. And then, it only happens every four years.”
If he were to win the road race, Gilbert would single-handedly match Belgium’s solitary gold medal from Beijing in 2008, with the country’s athletes only managing to bring home one silver medal alongside that.
“The prestige is worth more than a jersey,” he reflects. “It should be said that as a parcours, the one in the Netherlands seems much more suited to me than the one at the Games in London. However, for the world championship, there will also be an opportunity in Florence in 2013.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.