World Champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) remains optimistic for the Ardennes Classics despite a winless streak. He has yet to score a victory since taking the rainbow jersey in September, but is stepping closer, yesterday placing second to Peter Sagan (Cannondale) in Brabantse Pijl.
He and team-mate Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) escaped in the final 18 kilometres. With their team effort, they nearly tricked cycling's most versatile rider.
"I was happy to be up there with Greg Van Avermaet," Gilbert said to press huddled around him post-race. "It's always better to win, but it's a step for the Ardennes. It's good for the head."
Sagan chased back after Van Avermaet escaped with Nikolas Maes (Omega Pharma-QuickStep). Gilbert followed, but failed by centimetres to hold off Sagan in the sprint.
Gilbert has been chasing his younger rival and a win all season.
Since winning the World Championships in Valkenburg, in The Netherlands, he has fallen short. He crashed, abandoned and ended his season in the Tour of Lombardy.
Besides Brabantse Pijl, he scored one other second place. On the final road stage of Paris-Nice, he lost the sprint to Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
Gilbert certainly would like to have a framed photo of him winning in the rainbow jersey. BMC Racing sports director, John Lelangue told Cycling Weekly last September that his rider feels no extra pressure to win.
"He has no problem, the pressure will not change for him," Lelangue explained. "He's always going to the classics with an objective ... the pressure is always to make a good result. It's not a problem for him to manage this kind of pressure."
Gilbert cancelled the Tour of Flanders from his agenda and raced the Tour of the Basque country to be ready for the Ardennes Classics. The weather made the race harder and helped convince Gilbert to abandon in the fifth stage.
He told journalists at the race, "I didn't feel very good, so I just say to stop and try to recover and train for next week."
It seems to have worked. He placed second to Sagan yesterday, four days ahead of the Amstel Gold Race.
"The parcours doesn't lie. It's impossible to hide, so the best riders come to the front. I was there with Sagan, which is significant for the Ardennes Classics," Gilbert said yesterday.
"Plus, I saw when Sagan tried to ride clear that he was only able to maintain his gap, not increase it, which tells me that he's not that much better."
He will also take comfort from the new finish line in Amstel Gold, which is on familiar grounds. The organiser moved it further down the road to the same spot where Gilbert won the Worlds on September 23.
Gilbert took the Amstel Gold title two years ago. He went on to complete the Ardennes Treble that week with Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège victories.
Peter Sagan out-sprints Philippe Gilbert to take Brabantse Pijl
Philippe Gilbert: Rider profile
Gregor Brown is an experienced cycling journalist, based in Florence, Italy. He has covered races all over the world for over a decade - following the Giro, Tour de France, and every major race since 2006. His love of cycling began with freestyle and BMX, before the 1998 Tour de France led him to a deep appreciation of the road racing season.
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