Despite acknowledging his career would take on “another dimension” if he takes his fifth different Monument at Milan – San Remo, Philippe Gilbert is refusing to let the pressure get to him.
Ever since he won the 2019 edition of Paris-Roubaix, the Lotto-Soudal rider has fielded questions as to whether he can become only the fourth rider in history to win all five of the greatest one-day Classics.
“I knew that I would have pressure from people because it’s an expectation,” Gilbert said at his team’s hotel just outside Milan. “It’s not a thing anymore if I win tomorrow, it’s just my whole career will take on another dimension and it will be something people haven’t seen in so long. So it will be really special. I understand it is a lot of expectation.”
The expectation is not just coming from fans and the media, but members of the peloton as well.
“Yesterday we saw the riders from Ineos and the first thing one of them said to me was if I was ready to join history on Saturday. So it’s not only coming from the public, from the media, but also from the riders. Because everyone knows it. It’s clear. It’s not a secret and my motivation is there, to win this race.
“I will try my best and if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I mean, then it’s still a full season with a lot of races. So if I don’t win tomorrow then it’s off to another race and I will do like I always do after losing or winning and just reset and go on.
“This is what I always do. And this is also why I’ve sometimes won many races in a short time because when I win it’s behind me, I don’t think about it, I’m just thinking about the next one. And I will not change this.”
Gilbert seems to have found an equilibrium, a peace, within the eye of the storm. Even former team-mates turned rivals are hoping he’ll take victory on the coast in San-Remo.
“I think if I put a lot of stress on myself, it would be only bad for me,” the Belgian explains. “And I made mistakes when I was younger because I didn’t have the experience and I was attacking too early, choosing the wrong side of the bunch, the wrong wheel, things like that. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past and I just hope to not do it tomorrow. To win San Remo you need to do the perfect race. If you want to do the perfect race you have to go [there] without pressure. Because pressure is stress and with the stress you always make mistakes.”
Is the 38-year-old already bored of talking about the five Monuments? Especially if he doesn’t manage it this year, he’s still contracted with Lotto-Soudal until the end of 2022, so he could find himself repeating this conversation in a lobby just down the road from Malpensa airport for two more years.
“Yeah but it’s the same every year I go to Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and they say if you win a third time then you’re equal with [Peter] Van Petegem and some other riders,” Gilbert laughs. “It’s always the same questions. And it’s normal.”
However, he concedes it’s better people are talking about you than not at all.
“It’s also a good sign. I will do my best.”
The 2020 edition will be the longest ever, with 6km added to make a total of 305km as organisers look to avoid Alessandria, which has been struck by heavy thunderstorms over the past few days.
An inland route also replaces the usual coastal passage after local authorities refused to close roads during peak tourist season. Two climbs have been added while squads have also been reduced to six riders each in order to squeeze 27 teams on the start line.
“The course we’re given is an opportunity to make it harder,” Gilbert said. “But now we are six riders in the team. I don’t know if the guys will go [on the climbs] or wait to save teammates. So now the question is who is going to go or not? We will see.”
Gilbert is not wrong. We will see.