Poker Face: Gilbert says he’s not so bad, but not so good, either

World champion Philippe Gilbert kept his cards close on Thursday, but plays his first cobbles hand on Friday in Harelbeke


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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Philippe Gilbert isn’t giving anything away on the cards he’s holding leading into the cobbled classics, and on Thursday only said that he’s “much better” this spring than he was in 2012.

Except, he didn’t even really say that much when, later in a press conference in Kortrijk, Belgium, Gilbert added that he was “not so bad,” but also “not very good.”

He was pressed on the form of a major rival, and last year’s undisputed king of the stones, Omega Pharma-Quick Step captain Tom Boonen. He never even got close to biting.

“I don’t know,” Gilbert said. “If I say something it’s tomorrow’s big line in the newspaper. I don’t want to speak about his condition. I have experience.”

That experience may have kept the explosive Gilbert hushed in the run up to Friday’s E3 Harelbeke and next week’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). Then again, it’s hard to know what the champ’s got in his hand.

When asked about BMC Racing’s competition, Gilbert was downright political: “We always race together now with this calendar,” he said. “We know which team is strong, who is going good and not. And we know where we are at compared to the others.”

Nothing. No names, no rivals, nothing.

The holder of the rainbow jersey also said he was suffering from a cold, but that once he got on the bike he tended to feel better. In the same breath, he hinted at his potential on these rough roads but managed to downplay his chances. He said a lot, but said nothing much at all.

But the facts are this: These early races, E3 Harelbeke and Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem, are the tune-ups for the monument, the Tour of Flanders, which comes in little more than a week’s time. Gilbert knows it. Boonen (who won Harelbeke last year, and four other times) knows it.

“Like I’ve said. I’ve never been good this weekend,” Gilbert said. “For sure, it gives you confidence if you are there in the final and close to the win.”

Of course, that doesn’t define what will happen in the Flanders battle, as the monument is much longer, but it does indicate who’s going well on the cobbled hellingen of East Flanders at this time of year.

“This time last year I was just able to follow,” Gilbert said. “After 150 kilometers, I was completely empty. But this year, I hope to be in the final. I don’t know if I can go with the best to the final, but I hope to be there, then we’ll see.”

It will be cold this weekend (a high of 46 Fahrenheit on Friday, with a 10 mph wind, a chance of snow and a high of 37 F on Sunday) but Gilbert likes the cold. The weather, it seems will be no problem.

“It’s cold. But I like this cold weather. I’ve never had a problem with this. I’m always competitive in this weather,” he said. “It’s good for me.”

BMC Racing is an outright super team, yet true classics success has eluded it. It will line up in Belgium with Gilbert, who won all four of the hilly Ardennes classics in 2011 while riding for Silence-Lotto, and Thor Hushovd, who’s finished second, third, and eighth at Paris-Roubaix and won Ghent-Wevelgem in 2006.

Klaas Lodewyck, Daniel Oss, Taylor Phinney, Manuel Quinziato, Michael Schär, and Greg Van Avermaet make up the balance of the squad for the two upcoming classics.

“I think for the team, it’s also a big goal to win one of these classics,” Gilbert said. “We miss the big victory, but it will come.”

The Ardennes danger man did allow himself some ambition over Flanders, but even that was understated.

“It’s just a very big race,” he said. “I also miss this in my palmares. I think if I win this it can be very good for my palmares, and it can change a lot. We are motivated to win this. But I also have to play with my condition. I cannot be 100 percent in Flanders and also in Liège. I have to make a choice. And we’ll see.”

Does he want to win them all? Of course. “Yeah. It’s not new,” he said, smiling.

Today it’s time to lay the cards on the table.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.