Gilbert fell sick ahead of the Dwars door Vlaanderen last Wednesday, began the Tour of Flanders and unable to continue, withdrew early. It seemed unlikely he could come back in top form one week later to win his fourth of the five Monuments, but his experience and Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s might saw it happen.
“I put a huge amount of pressure on my shoulders after the disappointment of Flanders,” Gilbert said. “It had to happen today.”
He attacked with 65km to race, formed an elite group and then escaped free with Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin) at 14km to race before winning on the velodrome in a two-up sprint.
“When you win a sprint there’s an explosion of emotion that come from a sprint. The emotion today was a lot different because with a few kilometres to go you never know if you’re going to win or not,” he continued.
“I realised again today what it means to win for the Quick-Step team. 700 victories with 100 riders, that is as much as Eddy Merckx and its great to win for this team which has so many qualities. And one goal, which is victory.”
The win adds to Monument wins in Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and two in Il Lombardia – only one step away from all five with Milan-San Remo. Only cycling’s elite, three Belgians – Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck – have won all five Monuments.
Gilbert’s career appeared in doubt after he fractured his kneecap in last year’s Tour de France. He came back, however and while this spring “the results weren’t there,” the 36-year-old began looking for revenge.
“It comes as a bit of a revenge victory. It was a huge disappointment after Flanders. I had worked really hard. I was getting better and it was extremely tough to abandon the Tour of Flanders. I wanted to start the race despite that terrible night, losing lots of kilos,” he explained.
“On Wednesday, I did six hours on the bike training around Nice. I need hills to train and that gives me a lot of confidence. The form was getting better and it gave me a huge boost for starting this morning.”
The 2012 world champion made the move but began to wonder about German Politt, who only has won once in his career but has been strong all spring.
“We spent most of the day together, at least the last 70km of the day it was a nice duo,” he said.
“I know him well. We were together last year just after the Arenberg and in breakaways during the season. I knew it would be an advantage to be with a rider like Nils because he’s a very generous rider and he gives 100 per cent. Both of us deserve to win today.”
Gilbert won the 2012 World Championships and all three Ardennes Classics. In 2018, he began to focus on the cobbled Classics and added Roubaix after his Flanders win in 2017. Each of those wins has come with a show, a long solo move in Flanders and a long fight to Roubaix this weekend.
“I like panache. I liked riders like Museeuw who would take off far from the finish. Or Bartoli. I used to dream of them and copy them in the past,” he continued.
“I like these long attacks. That’s where I feel I am the best. That’s how I make the difference when all of the leaders are fighting together mano a mano.”