The form of Philippe Gilbert might be on the up but the Belgian champion would welcome adverse weather conditions dampening his rivals’ victory hopes in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege this weekend. The oldest one-day classic on the calendar will be held over 257.5 km on Sunday with a total of 11 short but punishing climbs set to play a key role in deciding who wins ‘La Doyenne’, first held in 1892.
In 2011 Gilbert claimed his maiden Liege victory to seal a hat-trick of ‘Ardennes Classic’ wins, the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne and Liege, and thus set his stall out for a season which has been his best to date. Having since moved from Omega-Pharma to the BMC team, Gilbert is still looking for his first big win this year having finished sixth at Amstel last week and third at Fleche on Wednesday. And despite appearing to hit form in time, he is quietly hoping the cold and wet conditions forecast for Sunday give him the edge over rivals like Fleche winner Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and his fellow Spaniard Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
“I think that the weather plays into my favor. I can stand the cold, maybe more than the Italian or Spanish riders. So that can be an advantage for me,” he said.
At Fleche on Wednesday Gilbert finished four seconds behind Rodriguez after the Spaniard left everyone in his wake with an incisive acceleration late on the steep Mur de Huy climb. Gilbert admitted Rodriguez deserved the win, but hinted that his podium finish could be a sign of better things to come.
“I’ve come from a long ways down so I am satisfied to be back at this level,” added Gilbert. “Being on the podium is nice, but most important is a victory.”
All challengers meanwhile will be hoping to capitalize on the fact Gilbert will be racing without key helper Cadel Evans of Australia, the Tour de France champion who pulled out earlier this week with a sinus problem. A former two-time Liege champion, Valverde returned to the peloton in January following a ban for his implication in a Spanish doping affair. Valverde finished 51-seconds off the pace at Fleche but the lure of a third victory at Liege could inspire the Spanish climbing specialist. Czech rider Romain Kreuziger (Astana), reigning Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez of Spain (Euskaltel), Italian Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Australian Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge) and Luxembourg’s Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) will all have their eyes fixed on the Belgian. Gilbert last year pulled off the impressive feat of sprinting to victory despite a tense finale in which he was accompanied by the Schleck brothers Andy and Frank.
Less than two weeks after Flemish-speaking compatriot Tom Boonen grabbed his own slice of glory by winning a record equalling fourth Paris-Roubaix, fans of French-speaking Gilbert are expecting big things.
On Friday afternoon thousands of his fans began lining the two-kilometer long Cote de la Redoute climb, the third last in the race but considered by some as the most strategic. Gilbert grew up in the nearby village of Remouchamps and although that will afford him no extra advantage it will give his older brother Christian and his parents Jeannot and Anita an easier job of organising the party.
“We’ll have 120 kegs of beer and hundreds of bottles of special brew and 120 liters of (local alcohol) peket, 350 liters of strawberry vodka and 150 liters of wine,” Christian told La Derniere Heure newspaper.
The proceeds will go to local cycling clubs in the hope the next Gilbert is on the way.