A crash denied Philippe Gilbert an opportunity to challenge for a Tour Down Under title but the world champion has continued to race aggressively in an effort to open his season account in Australia.
Gilbert is in better shape than this time last year after a solid pre-season in which he was buoyed by the rainbow jersey.
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“I stopped the season earlier last year so I had more training in the winter and I was pretty motivated also with the jersey. I was training well,” he said in Adelaide.
“My endurance is perfect so I think I’ve built a good base for the season.”
The 30-year-old was part of a two-man break that was away for most of today’s fourth stage to Tanunda, which Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) won in a bunch sprint.
It followed a third place finish the day prior, which, had the former national champion not lost almost three minutes to Geraint Thomas on Wednesday, could have seen him in the running for the ochre jersey.
Saturday’s 151.5km queen stage to Willunga is not beyond the BMC puncheur, whose major season objectives include a return to the top step at the Ardennes Classics.
“I think it was important to start the season with good condition – not the best but still a little bit good,” Gilbert said.
“I still have to be much better than this but I’m happy.”
Gilbert famously claimed the Ardennes triple in 2011 where he also won his first Tour de France stage, wore the yellow jersey for a day and finished the season as the number one UCI-ranked professional.
His start to the 2012 season was, perhaps understandably, slower but culminated in an emphatic win at the world titles, which was the major target with the Belgium national team that also included a potential gold medalist in Tom Boonen.
“We were both focused for the win,” explained Gilbert.
“Boonen is a sprinter, he cannot attack on the climb like (the Cauberg) and I can attack. The theory was just that we turn in a good position at the bottom of the climb and if there was an opportunity for me to attack I can go and if not I was helping him for the sprint.
“When I saw (Vincenzo) Nibali going it was perfect. I saw the gap behind and opportunity to win and I just went at this moment.
“It was perfect,” he reiterated.
“This jersey is something special. I already had the yellow jersey but this one is just crazy the effect you have everywhere you go. I see when I come here it was a lot of people with the jersey to sign and things like this. It’s nice.”
Gilbert is set to start the Tour of Oman next month alongside teammate and 2011 Tour champion Cadel Evans, with Paris-Nice, E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders also on his race programme in the run to the Ardennes.
“I’ll do Flanders and Liege with two completely different teams. I think for Flanders it will be like (Thor) Hushovd and (Greg) Van Avermaet. They have a lot of experience and are strong in these races. And then for the Ardennes I will see Tejay (van Garderen) and maybe Cadel also. We don’t know yet the selections. I think for me it’s just important to have the best elements of the team and we just have to see which one is in good shape and which one can help the team.”
It’s early days but the signs are so far good for Gilbert, who in his second season with the talent-laden BMC, could be up for another career defining year.
“It’s not easy to get your selection so you’re never sure to race but it’s good like this, with the high level, everyone has to train hard and stay very concentrated,” he said in reference to his team’s stable. “If you’re not working hard then you don’t race.”
Gilbert is on a long-list of some 15 riders for the Tour but has not ruled out missing the 100th edition of the race with BMC’s focus set to centre around Evans and 2012 white jersey winner van Garderen, who also finished fifth overall.
“Last year I was interested because the start was in Liege so it’s very special for me. This year it’s different,” Gilbert said.
“If I go to the Tour I’m just a helper, I’m not an important rider for the Tour, the important riders are Evans and van Garderen and then the rest is just to support them.
“Maybe if one year I see a very nice course for me, with a lot of nice finishes for me, maybe there is an opportunity to see me back but we’ll see.”