World Champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) abandoned a frigid Vuelta a España yesterday with his sights on another rainbow jersey later this month in Florence. After winning a stage last week, his first victory as champion, the Belgian appears on track for a rare double.

“It was particularly cold [on Saturday] and I still felt cold this morning,” Gilbert told Het Nieuwsblad newspaper yesterday. “I didn’t want to take risks, so I decided to quit.”

The risk would be catching a cold and running his build-up to the World Championship road race on September 29. In the story of cycling, only five riders – the last being Paolo Bettini in 2007 – have won back-to-back titles.

Gilbert, 31, hardly looked ready to repeat earlier this season. Even last month, his chances appeared slim. When he began the Vuelta a España on August 24, he was winless as World Champion. You have to go back to Luc Leblanc or Rudy Dhaenens in the 1990s to find champions with similar droughts.

As with last year, which also saw him go winless until the Vuelta, Gilbert turned the tables with a stage win. Following a few top tens, Gilbert won on Thursday on the slight uphill kick to Tarragona.

“Finally,” Gilbert said in a Vuelta press statement that day. “With the Worlds coming up, I was feeling the pressure and that makes me even happier to win.”

Gilbert will likely not race again until the team time trial at the World Championships on Sunday, September 22. Being in Florence a week early will allow him to inspect the road course closely. This year’s course lacks the uphill finishing kick of Valkenburg, where Gilbert won last year, but is thought to be the hardest in years. To find something similar you nee to go back to Hamilton in 2003 or Lugano in 1996.

The closing 10 circuits feature three climbs: Fiesole, Via Salviati and Trento. Fiesole, north of the city, climbs for 4.3 kilometres and up to 295 metres. On the final time around, Gilbert and his rivals will face 10.5 kilometres to race. Via Salviati and Trento follow, both are shorter but much steeper.

Chris Froome (Sky) tested the course one month ago and said it is “suitable for many types of cyclist. … It could be one for the top climbers, puncheurs or breakaway specialists, it’s hard to imagine.”

Imagining a second Gilbert win becomes harder due to the size of the Belgian team. Due to a poor season, Tom Boonen’s crashes and Gilbert’s drought, Belgium may only take seven riders instead of the full nine. Gilbert will have to rely on Spain, Italy, Australia and Great Britain to carry the load, at least until the final circuits.

Related links

Philippe Gilbert: Rider profile