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Riders In Focus: Is This The Year, Gilbert?

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Leading up to the previews season, I think it'd be fun for folks to pick out a rider and examine their programme for the year. I'll get it started.

Just when you think there's nothing to get excited about (B-list Aussie sprint stages, usual doping and Pro Tour chaos), along comes a news item worthy of note:

"I am here first and foremost for training, but this is a nice race, as well as tough," he said. "I am having some good sensations..."

"I" is Philippe Gilbert, the FdJeux mega-talent looking once more for his breakout Spring programme. Two years ago he grabbed headlines by winning Het Volk at age 23, and tacked on stage wins at the Dauphine and Eneco Tour, plus a couple domestic races. Last year was more of a learning experience, a nice way of saying he didn't get any major results, though he scored points at Milan-San Remo, De Ronde, Paris-Roubaix, Fleche-Wallonne and Liege. He also finished the Dauphine, Tour de France and Vuelta, and still had enough left over to take 8th at the World Championships, his biggest points haul of the year.

To see him at the TdU suggests he's off to an unusually early start. Last year he didn't log a race day til the Volta ao Algarve in late February, and in '06 he kicked off his season in France on Jan. 31. My initial reaction was that he'll be ahead of the game at Het Volk and primed for a repeat, but he's apparently targeting Milan-San Remo:

My first real goal is Milan-Sanremo. I will ride Paris-Nice as preparation before that. Then the Tour of Flanders, De Vlaamse Pijl, Amstel and Liège.

Apparently there's some consensus that MSR is a good race for him: his fans voted MSR as his second-best course in 2007, after the Worlds. He took 6th there in 2005, but 32nd and 21st since then. It's hard to think of a rider winning there and also targeting Liege... unless you're Paolo Bettini. Is he the Belgian Cricket? Check back in ten years.

Since I know so much about coaching professionals, I've suggested in the past that he hone in on certain types of races rather than trying to contest sprints, cobbled classics, and the Ardennes all in one season. Not a requirement for every rider, but Gilbert could use some results to match his awesome skills, and the conventional wisdom is that focusing more lends itself to winning. But I can't help wondering if in his case it's true. There's no law that says a rider can't win MSR and Liege in the same year -- after all, one of his countrymen pulled off that double two times.

Anyway, he's a rider to watch pretty much for the next nine months. Well, presumably not in May, or maybe not July, but if he has the kind of season you'd look for from a top-shelf 26-year-old, he'll be on the short list at Varese this fall.