Everything was so easy for Philippe Gilbert last year. Ardennes classics? Yes, he won them all. Belgian national championships? Yes, he won both the time trial and road titles. Tour de France yellow jersey? Sure, he just dropped everyone on the climb to the finish of stage 1 on the breezy Mont des Alouettes.
Gilbert was expected to continue his run of classics victories this year with his new team, BMC Racing, which is paying him a reputed couple of million dollars a year to promote the Swiss brand of bicycles by winning races. So far, his season has been a bust. He has been lashed in the Belgian media and desperately needs a headline-grabbing ride in the 99th Tour de France to put his career back on track. Fortunately for Gilbert there have been good signs leading into stage 1 that circumnavigates his home region.
When this stages route from Lige to Seraing was first announced, Tour organizer ASO designated a finish on a wide stretch of road between the muddy waters of the Meuse River and the rust-covered, mostly abandoned steelworks that once formed the heart of Belgiums industrial complex. The locals didnt like the idea of a field sprint on the scheduled flat stage finish, so they came up with an alternative that was later approved by ASOs French technical director, Jean-Franois Pescheux.
Not surprisingly, this new finish, the one that the peloton will be tackling Sunday afternoon, is perfectly matched to Gilberts best asset: accelerating form the field on a very steep uphill and then maintaining a good gap to the finish line as the gradient eases. But to pull of such a stage win, Gilbert will need his BMC team to keep earlier breakaways under control and then set him up for an attackand hope that he can deliver!
That might have been a near certainty when the new finish was selected last year, but now there are big question marks against such a outcome. Gilbert is totally aware of the expectations placed on him, and he says hes ready to please the thousands of fans who will be lining the 2.4-kilometer climb from the Meuse River up to Seraings highest neighborhood.
He will have been encouraged by his ninth place in Saturdays prologue time trialnot his favorite exercise. Just as he was pleased last Sunday at the Belgian national road championships in Geel, where he made a long solo effort on completely flat roads to pursue the days winning breakaway. Though he missed getting into that breakaway and so didnt win the race, he did manage to drop the peloton and close to within 15 seconds of the breakaway group. And he held that gap for some 5 kilometers on his own while national rival Tom Boonen and four others were working together furiously just ahead of him.
Though his chase fell short, Gilbert did show that he is fast approaching much better form, which was confirmed by his good prologue performance. Whether that form will be good enough to let him clinch a stage win of immense prestige remains to be seen. The opening road stage of any Tour is raced at full throttle and is full of risks, as was demonstrated last year when a mass pileup in the closing kilometers, triggered by a rider colliding with a roadside spectator, left race favorite Alberto Contador with a bad bruise in his back and a time deficit that he was unable to overcome.
If Gilbert can survive such mishaps and reach the foot of the Seraing climb in a good position, he will have the incentive to pull off a long-awaited success. Of course, there are a host of other teams and riders looking for an early stage win. And the hottest tip to win Sunday is the obvious one: Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale, even though this is his debut Tour. Sagan has been virtually unbeatable in group finishes at the recent Tour de Suisse and last months Tour of California. But this time Sagan also has a duty to help teammate Vincenzo Nibali, especially after the Italian did so well in the prologue, and the Seraing finish is one that all the GC riders will have to contend.
Also mentioned as possible stage winners are Skys Eddy Boasson Hagen, Movistars Alejandro Valverde and Oricas Matt Goss. Boasson Hagen won a Tour stage last year at Lisieux at the top of a similar hill, but only after following moves and taking a mass sprint when the gradient eased. And should his world champion teammate Mark Cavendish, much slimmer than usual, be able to hang on the steeper opening part of the climb then he shouldnt be ruled out.
But the hometown advantage will be huge for Gilbert. And in the context of his season and his career, losing again is not an option.