Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) is not surprised that he is riding so well on the cobbles this 2017 season even though it has been five years since he last raced a full Classics campaign.
Gilbert, who joined Quick-Step from BMC Racing this winter, helped team-mate Yves Lampaert win the Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday and stormed to second place behind him. It marked his first cobbled classics podium since the 2010 Tour of Flanders.
"I didn't ride the cobbles for a long time, but riding on them is like playing football, you have certain skills and it's not like you lose those overnight," Gilbert said.
Fans greeted their national champion with screams on Friday morning in Harelbeke, west of Brussels, like one of their own, even though he is from Belgium's southern Wallonia region.
Gilbert cut his teeth on the Flemish cobbles racing as an amateur and with Marc Sergeant's Lotto team. Sergeant already knew Gilbert from working with him when he was the national coach and he remembered young Gilbert learning Dutch to acclimatise in the cycling-strong region, where Tom Boonen was maturing at the same time.
Eventually, though, his biggest results came in the country's south and over the border in Maastricht. He won all three Ardennes Classics in 2011 and the World Championship in 2012 when it used some of the Amstel Gold Race course in Valkenburg.
In his period with BMC Racing, from 2012 through 2016, Gilbert rarely raced on Flemish roads. BMC, instead, led with Greg Van Avermaet and sent Gilbert to race in his home area, in the Ardennes Classics.
Now, and with the strongest classic team, Quick-Step, he returns to the cobbles. He teams up with Boonen, who is on his farewell tour ending with Paris-Roubaix on April 9, and stars like Niki Terpstra.
"It's really nice to race these cobble classics with team Quick-Step, you feel the experience that it has and the staff has. Everyone in this team is really into it," Gilbert said.
"This is a Belgian team, it's normal, everyone is more focused and more concerned about these races."
Quick-Step have showed many times that they are not afraid to play one of their multiple cards to beat their rivals. As with Sky in Milan-San Remo, they may need to do so in order to beat Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). This could allow Gilbert his chance.
"For sure, I'd like to win one cobbled race this season," Gilbert added. "Flanders? Why not. The most important is to see the team winning."
After Flanders, Gilbert will take a break and prepare for the Ardennes classics two weeks later. Instead of Boonen and Terpstra, Gilbert will team with Julian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin in Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Fans are wondering: is Gilbert a cobble or Ardennes cyclists cyclist? And like Michal Kwiatkowski, does he need to choose one series of races over another?
"It's always been a problem, I can do both. Maybe I'm a little bit better in the Ardennes," Gilbert explained.
"Yeah, it’s always hard to choose. Of course, though, it's a good problem to have."
Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1