Classics winner, Grand Tour stage winner, National champion and World champion; Philippe Gilbert is all this, but he is far from finished. He still wants to make his mark on those cobbled Classics and in his own words; “I would stop cycling if it’s to do a top five only!” That’s pretty serious for a man of his class. We managed to have a good chat with Philippe in Spain to find out what’s been going on in his life and at the BMC team over the winter and his plans for the future, beard or no beard.
In action at the Tour de Qatar
PEZ: You are looking sharp; did you have a good winter?
Philippe Gilbert: I had a very good winter and I feel good, I feel very motivated to start a new season and that’s more important. I worked hard and I was really focused on what I did and I didn’t lose time on superficial things like on ceremonies and everything. I focused on the most important; which is training and rest and this will pay I think.
PEZ: That’s different from the winter of a World Champion with lots of ceremonies etc?
Philippe: Lucky I didn’t have the choice last year, I had to go and it was not the perfect thing, but yeah.
Philippe Gilbert and his BMC gang.
PEZ: Have you changed anything with your training?
Philippe: No, it’s pretty much the same. I had a really good winter, the weather was great in Monaco and I never had to say one day; “you know it was cold or it was raining, I cannot do my training.” I did everything how we planned, just perfect, yeah.
PEZ: Greg Van Avermaet said the training has changed.
Philippe: I think everyone is different, but I’m training well and it’s very good.
PEZ: Was it good for you mentally to have less attention during the winter?
Philippe: No, it’s just important to focus on the training and on the rest and then it’s coming by its self. The last season was not good and I was disappointed with my season and my performance and I just wanted to forget this and go for a new successful season.
PEZ: Did you feel you needed to clear your head?
Philippe: It’s a small World and if you stay in this World always it’s like…today is the same, it’s the same questions, you know. But then if you never go out of this game, you turn around like a fish in the sea…or in a bowl. You never go out and sometimes you need to make a break and focus on yourself. I had a holiday in the sun to relax.
PEZ: Would you say you are at the same level as you were in the winter of 2011?
Philippe: I said I’m not far from my best levels of my winters of the past. But I’m good, I feel good and I know I will be good in the next season.
PEZ: Different from last winter?
Philippe: Yeah, yeah.
PEZ: Can you explain why you were so good in 2011?
Philippe: No, I don’t know. It’s like sometimes everything goes perfectly and sometimes some things go wrong. Like I said before; I didn’t miss any of my training and maybe sometimes you miss five or six days and five or six days are a lot. You don’t lose condition, but you don’t gain, so it means you just stay stable and you don’t gain condition and the goal is to gain every week.
Fleche Brabanconne, Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallone, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, all in 10 days!
PEZ: What is your big goal for this season?
Philippe: For me it’s Sanremo because the final has changed a lot (if they use it) and I like it and then the Ardennes of course. Then we will see because it’s so far away, it’s not easy to speak about later.
PEZ: Do you think the changes in Sanremo are a good thing?
Philippe: Its hard to say, I’ve seen so many different opinions about this, everyone has their own opinion and I guess the organisers searched to have something different and they have a reason, I don’t know. Maybe they are the best people to answer that.
PEZ: Have you checked-out the Il Pompeiana climb?
Philippe: Yeah a few times. It’s like; you turn and it’s steep directly, so it’s painful because you know when you come from the flat and hit a climb like this, it’s painful. They are all pretty much the same (in the area), you quit the seaside and then it’s like boom! Steep and then also a little bit technical.
PEZ: So the sprinters will be dead there?
Philippe: I don’t know if they will start.
PEZ: Thor Hushovd said it is more for a rider like Nibali.
Philippe: We will see, it’s a long time away.
PEZ: It would suit a rider like Joaquim Rodriguez, in the way he won Lombardy.
Philippe: I didn’t see his schedule; for sure he will be good, if he comes to a race like this. If only the climbers start they will be it there, but it’s very hard to say something, when we see the selection for Paris-Nice and Tirreno then you can maybe say this guy will be good and this guy not, but before this its hard because it’s a very long time and there can be some people sick or some not ready and the surprise guys that are flying. It’s hard to say just now.
PEZ: Is it just a feeling or do the numbers say you are in good condition?
Philippe: I feel it and I see it also in my training, in my files and everything.
PEZ: Since John Lelangue (ex-team DS) left has there been a different feel to the team.
Philippe: It’s like a new team. For me it’s almost like I have signed for a different team, it’s like a completely different team. Everybody is excited I think, especially now after the nice start from Cadel in Down Under, this has given extra motivation because you always want to copy the guys of the team and when it starts well you also want to do well, this gave us something extra. I think the message was clear from October, not speaking for nothing, we did everything we had to do to be there and I can feel it today also everybody looks ready to race.
PEZ: Do you also want to win as soon as possible?
Philippe: Everything is possible, but I want to be competitive and winning if I can, yes. If the chance is there, for sure I go. I want to be successful.
Two Belgian ex-World champions in Qatar ’14.
PEZ: Greg Van Avermaet said that the team is now for winning, not just to be there, do you feel the same?
Philippe: For me it has always been like this in my spirit, to be there to show the jersey and things like that. I think we are going in the right way, the right team spirit. Now it’s like this, it’s more important.
PEZ: You said in an interview that you are 32 and not on your way out.
Philippe: After two years, even if I was World champion in 2012, I was not at my best level and especially last year and after two years like this it’s hard, you start to think; am I too old already or do I have something, but I can feel now I’m back and motivated. The thing is you don’t enjoy so much when you race at this level coz it’s not nice when you come in the final, because I was in the final, but knew I was not going to win, I was maybe 5th or 7th like in Liege and the Ardennes. I would stop cycling if it’s to do a top five only because I have more motivation than to do this. So when I see if I’m not able to win anymore, I’ll stop.
PEZ: So you missed the feeling of winning?
Philippe: Yes…a lot.
PEZ: In hindsight did you make a mistake last year?
Philippe: I was racing a lot and that was a mistake, yes. I need, like I also did in 2011, to have a long break in the season where I can train a lot and revive the condition, because it is not possible to go from one race to another, like for nine or ten months. So it’s what I will do also now, so after the Classics, have a real break, a real break where I rest for two or three days and then train really hard. After Liege I need a break.
PEZ: Is that why you don’t do the Flemish Classics this year.
Philippe: I really want to focus on the Ardennes, it’s like after Sanremo I have two weeks of training and I need this to go really hard in training and focus more on the quality of training and rest and not travelling and so on. When you go racing; say Harelbeke, that means you have to travel there, you have to a take a day off the day before the race and take a day off the day after the race, just to help the team, I prefer to train. There will be no racing between Sanremo and Pays Basque.
PEZ: Was it a difficult choice for you to miss the Belgian races?
Philippe: For me it not nice for the Belgian fans because they will not see me, so I feel a bit sorry for this, for sure I will miss the atmosphere because it unique, but they can still come to Liege and Amstel and Fleche-Wallone, it’s not so far. They can still have a chance to see me.
PEZ: You said last year that you felt a little alone in the Classics, with Darwin Atapuma and Peter Velits coming to the team will this help?
Philippe: Velits for sure because he has the experience and he’s motivation. Atapuma I don’t know him, the first time I met him was in October. I think he is more for GC.
PEZ: Could Velits be the new (Jelle) Vanendert?
Philippe: Maybe, because he is able to be there in the last 10K’s of Amstel and Liege.
PEZ: Is it something that will be different from last year to have a fixed team support?
Philippe: You need this to be automatic together, to know each other, coz racing is all about the feeling we have, you can see a team working well when they are working together like friends, also and you can see there’s something between them, like a link. At the end you don’t need to talk anymore coz you can see he’s pedalling differently or his position is not the same and you know exactly what your team mate is doing.
PEZ: Can you choose who will support you?
Philippe: I ask to have a strong team for the Classics.
No tour, but maybe more Vuelta success?
PEZ: Are you on the long list for the Tour?
Philippe: I hope not, I hope not. I’ll give my place to another.
PEZ: The second stage to Sheffield could be good for you?
Philippe: I can watch it on TV also.
PEZ: So you prefer to ride the Vuelta this year and prepare for the Worlds?
Philippe: For sure this is my goal. Also the Vuelta was smart with the course, we finish there so you just stay there (in the North of Spain near the Worlds), you go to Spain for six weeks and you know it, so it’s perfect.
PEZ: The Vuelta doesn’t look as hard as previous years.
Philippe: The riders make the race. A flat stage can be very hard, you saw in the Tour when Cavendish won that stage, everybody said, on paper, it’s easy and in the end it was the hardest one. The riders make the race, sometimes you can have 5,000 (metres climbing) and it’s easy because everybody is scared and you wait and wait and nothing happens and sometimes it’s flat and its full gas.
PEZ: Do you think its better preparation for the Worlds than last year’s Vuelta?
Philippe: Yeah and also I saw the transfers between the stages are nice. It’s come back to reality.
PEZ: Will you check-out the Worlds course after the Classics with the Belgian team?
Philippe: No, for me it’s not possible because I want to do the Belgian time trial championships, they are on May the 1st. I told Carlo (Bomans, Belgian National team director) that I cannot go.
Philippe Gilbert: 2012 World Champion.
PEZ: Do you think you have lost some of that explosiveness that you used to have?
Philippe: No, I’m the same or better, I don’t know, but we will see in the race, but I’m really good…wait and see!
PEZ: Have you done some special training for this?
Philippe: I did a lot of sprints, yes. But we always do a lot of climbing sprints, because this is my strongest point and I guess it’s normal to work on your best points.
PEZ: Do you think the course of the Worlds is as good for you as when you won in 2012?
Philippe: I think it’s always good for me when the sprinters and the climbers can say they have a chance, because then the level is higher and its easier when you are strong. Because there are more people working and more people in the final and you know when it’s only a few guys, it’s easy to say; I just have to look at these three guys, but when it’s all the climbers there and the sprinters it can come from anywhere at any moment and its harder to control this race. I think it will be the same case in Ponferrada.
PEZ: In last year’s Worlds was the weather the big problem?
Philippe: Even if it was not raining it was very hard, so you knew at the start there was only ten guys able to win, but I guess this year there will be a lot of guys able to win.
PEZ: What did you think of the final of last year’s Worlds?
Philippe: I saw them from far away, for about 20 seconds!
PEZ: But after the race when you read what people were saying about the conflict between Valverde and Rodriguez?
Philippe: I just hope this never happens in the Belgian team.
PEZ: You say you want to ride Paris-Roubaix in 2015 and the Flanders Classics, does that mean you won’t focus on Liege and the other Ardennes Classics.
Philippe: I want to win again in the Ardennes this year, that’s for sure, if I can win at least one and then its maybe time to give me a chance to win the others. It’s always been a dream for me to win all the Classics, so it’s time now to go and try.
PEZ: Don’t you think you need more experience to win these cobbled Classics?
Philippe: Yeah but you also need more resistance and when you are older you are more resistant, but we say this and at the same time a young guy can win. It’s not mathematic.
Looks like a beard?
PEZ: Are you growing a beard?
Philippe: No, I just didn’t have the time to have a shave.
PEZ: Do you think there are too many beards in the Pro peloton these days?
Philippe: There are a lot; It’s a problem for the companies who sell razors I think!
PEZ: Would you think of growing a beard?
Philippe: No, no, I was just lazy.
PEZ: Was that a different enough question from the usual ones?
Philippe: Yes, good one, thank you.
Philippe Gilbert is a funny guy and likes to laugh, but when it comes to racing there can’t be many as serious as the Monaco living Belgian. As he said himself, he misses winning “a lot!” Will 2014 bring him the success he had in 2011? He things so…wait and see.
Philippe gets beaten by a postman!