By Gregor Brown
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) heads towards the World Championships without one win in the rainbow jersey, the worst since Luc Leblanc or Rudy Dhaenens in the 1990s. His last chance to raise arms in victory with the colours on his chest is in the Vuelta a España, where a win seems hard to come by.
On Monday, the organiser delivered a stage to Mirador de Lobeira that the Belgian normally would have devoured. The same sort of kick in the final allowed him to win the World Championship last year in Valkenburg. Instead, the stage symbolised his season: just off the mark. Gilbert placed 37th at 24 seconds behind Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard).
This is not the same Gilbert that stormed through the 2011 season with 18 wins, including all three Ardennes Classics and a stage in the Tour de France. In fact, this is Gilbert's worst season (win-wise) since he turned professional in 2003.
You have to go back to Frenchman Luc Leblanc or Belgian Rudy Dhaenens to find something similar. As World Champion, Leblanc only won one small race in 1995 and Dhaenens' last win was his 1990 title.
Gilbert had a similarly quiet season leading to the Worlds last year, not taking his first win until the Vuelta's Barcelona stage on August 26.
"He wanted to become number one in the WorldTour [and] number one with team Lotto," Stéphane Thirion, journalist for Belgium's Le Soir newspaper, told Cycle Sport magazine 11 months ago. "It was too much, and he didn't take enough rest."
Thirion co-authored a book with Gilbert on 2011: My Year in Top Gear. It also covered his switch from Lotto to BMC racing that winter. Gilbert reportedly signed a three-year contract, 2012 to 2014, worth €3m annually.
"I am a human," Gilbert explained last year in Barcelona. "I paid for 2011's successes, but also appointments and stress. I raced too much and sometimes beyond my limit. I paid for the efforts."
Gilbert won again in the Vuelta and turned his season around with the world title in Valkenburg. Hope remains considering he has ridden as consistently, if not more so, this season. The Vuelta has only covered its first four days and presents many more opportunities for a rainbow win.
Looking ahead to September 29, with the short sharp climbs coming ahead of the final, the Florence Worlds suits Gilbert. Fine-tuning in Spain, perhaps winning, will allow him to challenge the likes of Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) in Italy.
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