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MADRID (VN) — The pressure is on world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) to post some big results in the upcoming Ardennes classics.
The Belgian superstar has had a discreet debut to his 2013 season, so far winless in the rainbow jersey.
After being a non-factor in a weather-marred Milano-Sanremo and skipping the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), all eyes turn to Gilbert to see what he can do in the most important week of his early season.
Gilbert lines up Wednesday in Brabantse Pijl (Brabant Arrow) in what his team is calling a “dress rehearsal” for Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race in the Netherlands.
“Philippe will be a well-protected leader with some good support riders around him,” BMC sport director John Lelangue said on the team’s website. “It will be a good last dress rehearsal before the big week of the Ardennes classics.”
Gilbert, 30, has been somewhat of an enigma so far in the opening months of 2013.
He’s clearly been savoring his time in the rainbow jersey and no one can argue that he hasn’t been racing hard. He’s been on the attack on several occasions, but so far he’s lacked the luck or the form to seal the deal with a victory.
He’s been close, with a third-place result in a stage at the Santos Tour Down Under in his season debut in January, and a second in the penultimate stage at Paris-Nice when Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) out-kicked him coming into Nice.
Those performances were good indicators that Gilbert was on track for a big spring, but so far, he’s hardly left a dent.
He was 32nd at Sanremo and in Belgium, Gilbert finished 48th at E3 Prijs-Harelbeke and 42nd at Ghent-Wevelgem. Hardly the kind of results that Gilbert or his rabid fans were hoping for.
Instead, it’s been Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) who have dominated the classics. Cancellara has pulled the plug on his spring, but Gilbert will face Sagan today and Sunday.
Concerned that he was a touch off top form, the team pulled Gilbert out of the Tour of Flanders to race the hilly and demanding Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) last week.
Once again, poor weather stymied Gilbert and he pulled out early to avoid crashing or falling ill ahead of the Ardennes.
“I was not recovering and was not so motivated for today,” Gilbert said last week after abandoning in the fifth stage. “The classics are next week. I didn’t feel very good, so I just say to stop and try to recover and train for next week.”
Without question, Gilbert enters the Ardennes as the man to watch.
Thousands of Belgians will line the roads of the Ardennes to cheer on their favorite son, who grew up in a town at the base of the La Redoute climb on the Liège-Bastogne-Liège course.
Gilbert said earlier this season if he could pick one race to win in the rainbow jersey it would be Liège (April 21).
“To win the world championship was a dream,” Gilbert said during the Tour Down Under. “To win Liège while wearing the rainbow jersey, that would be bigger than a dream.”
Even by his own admission, however, Gilbert looks off his magical form in 2011, when he barnstormed through the Ardennes, winning Brabantse, Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège all in a row.
But he’s clearly in much better condition than last year, when he limped through the Ardennes, snatching third at Flèche to salvage his pride.
“I am a little better than I was this time last year,” Gilbert said with a laugh during an earlier interview with VeloNews.
It’s not a question of whether there’s a curse that comes with the rainbow jersey, but rather if Gilbert has the form he needs to win.
Gilbert, who will bring the rainbow jersey to the Amgen Tour of California next month, says he feels the weight of the world title.
“I can tell that I am more of a marked man in the races. And the TV cameras follow me more,” he said. “The rainbow jersey also motivates me.”
Gilbert is keenly aware that all eyes will be on him, especially after his slow start in 2012 following his near-perfect 2011 season.
Gilbert has always been able to rely on his natural talent to pick up wins, but as his profile has increased, so too has pressure on him to deliver results.
Today’s race at Brabantse will provide a clue of where Gilbert is going into Sunday’s Amstel Gold, which removed its finishing straight at the top of the Cauberg to replicate the same finish line where Gilbert won the world title last year.
“I like Brabantse Pijl because it’s technical and I do a lot of efforts,” Gilbert said on the BMC website. “I can go deep in this race and still recover in time for Amstel on Sunday.”
Gilbert could be playing poker, holding back his form to surprise his rivals in the Ardennes.
One big win in the rainbow jersey next week would erase all doubts. Gilbert’s been known to hold an ace up his sleeve.