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The overwhelming focus on Tom Boonen has led to the rest of Belgium's very promising bunch of young riders being almost completely overshadowed, and their potential often forgotten. Among them is Francaise des Jeux's Philippe Gilbert, who at 23 finds himself in similar position to Boonen a couple of years ago having taken some good wins and made a name for himself but wanting to win a major race to mark his breakthrough into the big time.
As a resident of Remouchamps, home to the seriously tough Lige-Bastogne-Lige climb of La Redoute, Gilbert has always been linked most closely with 'La Doyenne', but now believes he can make an impact in some of the other Classics, notably the Tour of Flanders and Milan-San Remo.
His FDJ boss Marc Madiot reckons that Gilbert will win "between seven and 10 races, including a very big one" this year, and is depending on the Belgian doing so after his team finished dead last in 2005's ProTour standings. Madiot admits that, after releasing most of his Australian riders, his focus is now on Swede Thomas Lovkvist at the major tours and Gilbert at the Classics, and Gilbert says he is more than ready to take up that team-leading challenge.
Always prepared to attack, as he did on several occasions during his Tour de France debut in July despite being badly affected by fatigue, Gilbert has told La Dernire Heure that he hopes to make better use of his physical resources this season. He has already started down this track by easing his off-season workload, but focusing more on specific strength-building exercises, which produced an increase of 30 watts in his power output when he was tested before Christmas.
"I want to start the year slightly slower," he told DH. "Last year I was at my peak for Milan-San Remo, but I gradually lost it after that as the Classics continued. But San Remo remains my first objective, because it's the Classic that suits me the best and one of the ones I dream about winning. I will prepare for it at Tirreno rather than Paris-Nice."
Gilbert's attacking tendencies have made him hard to miss, and there has been plenty of interest in him from rival teams. However, the young Belgian insists he will be staying at FDJ for now, although he foresees change in the future. "With time, and a desire for greater status, I will perhaps need a stronger team, but for the moment it's not down to us to control things at races.
"When that does happen we are perhaps a bit light. At the Giro, where the team was composed of younger riders, one day when [Brad] McGee was in the pink jersey, we were told to chase down six breakaways and we ended up losing time on them. We needed the sprinters' teams to help us out."
If Gilbert does want a way out of FDJ, he will need to find a team prepared to offer him more money than his current deal at the end of the 2006 season. If not, he is prepared to see out his contract to the end of 2007. "I would leave if I got a better offer. I would like to have a team around me because when I have got clear I have too often found myself alone," he admitted.
"But I've got no regrets about turning pro with FDJ instead of Quick Step or Lotto. I would not be where I am now if I had been in one of those teams where I would have had to have worked for the leaders. On the other hand, I would undoubtedly have won Paris-Tour this year if I had been wearing Quick Step's colours. Apart from [Fred] Guesdon, no one from my team could or perhaps understood that they needed to block at the front of the peloton behind my escape with Devolder."
But it seems that Gilbert's team-mates will be better briefed about the Belgian's chances this season, which Madiot no doubt realises could be Gilbert's last with the French team.
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