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A little under four weeks ago Greg Van Avermaet’s life changed forever. The Belgian went into the Olympic Games as a tipped rider but, frankly, not as one of the favourites. The course was seen as too hard for him and riders such as Tour de France winner Chris Froome, Spain’s Alejandro Valverde and other strong climbers were tipped for success.
However he rode superbly, displaying strong form and making astute tactical decisions that kept him close to the leaders on the final climb. He stayed upright on the descent, unlike Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) and Sergio Henao (Colombia), and then outsprinted Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark) and the recaptured lone leader Rafal Majka (Poland) inside the final 200 metres.
Still coming to terms with his biggest career win, Van Avermaet spoke to a select group of English-language media outlets including CyclingTips on Tuesday. The Belgian gave his perspective on the Rio road race, spoke about Peter Sagan’s decision to miss the race and explained the effect that win has had on his life. He also named some very big targets in the coming eight months.
Read selected quotes from the interview below.
Q: How was the Olympics, and how is it to now be a gold medallist?
Greg Van Avermaet: It has been really good. I am so happy with my win. It was not really expected because it was a really hard parcours. It was not the best parcours for me, but in the end I just believed that I could do a good race and I could do well on a parcours like that.
In the end I won. For me it was the biggest win of my career. To have such a great big win on your palmares is, I think, really nice for everybody and also for me.
Q: How was it coming back from a setback such as the Tour of Flanders and refocusing yourself towards the Olympics?
GVA: It was pretty hard because always my main goal were the Classics. I was going really well at the beginning of the year with the nice win in Tirreno and some other good results. I was preparing really well for Flanders and Roubaix, which were my main goals this year.
Crashing out of Flanders [was difficult], because I was feeling great on that day. It was a big disappointment as I felt there was a big win coming.
It was hard to recover from that. I just tried to set other goals. The other goal was, first of all, the Tour and then doing good at the Olympics and now the worlds in Qatar. Those two goals were already good and now hopefully I can do a good result also in Qatar.
Q: Obviously the GC guys from the Tour were seen as potential winners in Rio, guys like Chris Froome and others. However the difference is that they had to go deep all the way to the end of the Tour, whereas because you weren’t a GC guy you could pick and choose the days where you had to dig in.
Do you think that was key, that you were fresher than they were in the Olympic road race?
GVA: Yeah, for sure it is harder if you three weeks full gas. You are always stressed every day. You cannot lose seconds anywhere and this makes for sure a big difference in the end of a Grand Tour, in terms of fatigue.
With me I just focussed on a few days [he won stage five and also wore the yellow jersey – ed.]. Reaching Paris was pretty hard also, but I know if I don’t go too deep that I can recover well. In San Sebastian I had a good feeling already about how my shape was. I was fifth there and didn’t lack that much from being in the first group.
It was pretty good and then you just hope… Sometimes you have to have a special day, a really strong day, and the others maybe not to have the best day.
Also you have to be a little bit lucky with the crashes of Nibali and Henao, also. Otherwise it might have been a different story. But that is what racing is all about. Some guys just take more risks, and others play it a bit more conservative. That is what racing is about.
How the gold was won
Q: You were ahead of some of the favourites heading into in the finale, having been in the earlier break. Do you think that was key to your success?
Well, I think it was a good strategy to go a little bit earlier. That was my plan before the race. I spent a bit of energy there, but in the end I think I was just strong enough to be up there. If you see in the end, there were not that many guys who could bridge.
They were also not so far [back], actually. We never took more than 50 seconds and we also had to do our turns at the front. The other ones were saving a bit more than us, but when they came they didn’t really have the punch to really make the big difference. The strongest guys like Geraint Thomas, Henao, Nibali, Majka were there. I was just one of them. Then it was a little bit about luck and tactic, how it was played, in terms of who was going to win the race.
Q: Could you talk us through that finale, coming down that descent and chasing down Majka on the flat and crossing the line? What were your thoughts and emotions in that final stretch?
GVA: For me, I wanted to just go as far as possible. I was suffering really hard on the last climb. But then I felt that the others were not that strong any more. I could just keep everybody close. Nibali and Majka were only ten, 15 seconds ahead at the top. So still everything was possible.
Then we went down really fast with a lot of risks. You see a lot of guys lying on the ground, and you lose a little bit the sense of how many guys are still out in front. Then the coach from the national team came by and said there was only one guy [Majka] out front.
He said maybe it was better to go for the sprint for second or third place, to keep something [for that]. But I still believed that we could catch him. I felt that myself and Fuglsang were going pretty fast and we could catch Majka with two, three kilometres [to go]. For me it was just about staying focussed. I am the fastest guy of those three but you still have to win.
It is important that you don’t lose it in the final kilometres. You just stay focussed. Finishing the race in a sprint was actually the easiest thing about the race.
Q: In retrospect, do you think that maybe Peter Sagan made a mistake not to ride the road race?
GVA: Oh, for sure he had a big chance for sure to win on this parcours. He is the same type of rider as me. He is maybe a little bit better sprinter or a little bit better climber. So he had for sure a chance.
Sometimes you make a decision. It is like this. If he had won a medal in the mountain bike race, then nobody would be saying anything about it. He just had a little bit of bad luck.
If you see the start it was really impressive. I think also a lot of people watched this race just to see him, so he also took a little bit of attention there. That is also good for cycling, I think. People were a little bit extra interested in the mountain bike race.
For the road race, it is just a decision that you have to make. Sometimes you also make mistakes in the [racing] programme that you do during the year. But you cannot say it was a mistake, I think. He just had bad luck with his mountain bike race.
Smaller teams better for pro racing
Unlike many of the other races on the calendar, the Olympic road race featured much smaller squads. The biggest teams comprised just five riders and others had less. Van Avermaet believes this was another important element in his success in Rio, and would like to see the same in other events.
GVA: I think the races with less riders on teams are always nice racing for me, because they give more opportunity to race attractively and in an attacking way. That is what I like the most. It is hard to control.
When there are nine rider teams, it is easier to control and it would be maybe a different outcome in the end. That is what I said before the Olympics, that there were only five guys and there were only a few teams who could control. In the end there was not so much control.
I think it is good to think also of other races, maybe. I think they also have to go down in numbers of riders and maybe it makes cycling more attractive and more open.
Q: There has been talk about reducing riders in the Tour de France. Given what you said, do you think it is a good idea in terms of more attractive racing and making racing safer?
GVA: I think so. For sure we have to try it once. For sure we have some opportunities in other races. Maybe not directly the Tour de France; we can try in Dauphine, Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico..some races like this.
It would be very nice to see how the peloton and the teams react with less numbers. Then you can make a conclusion after this.
Doing this directly in the Tour would be maybe be directly a big thing but there are so many nice races already where we can try it out. It is maybe not a bad idea to try.
If you see the WorldTour calendar so big next year, it might not be bad for teams as a lot of teams have only 25 riders. It is hard to cover all the programme with the WorldTour racing. So to split it up a little bit would be maybe not a bad idea.
Q: How many riders would be ideal for you on a team?
GVA: In a Grand Tour, I think you have to go to six or maybe seven. Because in a Grand Tour, you have also some crashes in the first week. Some guys get sick. So you have to go maybe to seven and one day races to six.
[Note: Van Avermaet’s preference for smaller teams is in contrast to that of his boss, the BMC Racing Team President Jim Ochowicz. He has said in the past that he is against the reduction of squad sizes.]
Rio aftermath and major future goals
CT: How has your life changed since becoming Olympic champion?
GVA: It changed a bit. I was already pretty popular in Belgium. You have football and cycling there [as the major sports – ed.] If you are one of the best cyclists in Belgium you are already popular.
But now with the Olympics it is getting bigger and bigger. There are a lot of people who joined me on the ride from my home town to the town where I live now. When you see so many people come out for one guy, it is a bit of a strange feeling.
I am a guy who just loves to ride my bike. I like to win some races. But if you see how much people who you inspire, how much people discover you on the TV and support you, it is pretty amazing.
In the first week after the Olympics it was hard to go out and do my own things. All the people want to have a picture with you want, want to have a small talk. I like it but it also can be a bit too much as I still want to live my normal life. That is just how it is. You have to go to the supermarket, you have to go out for a nice dinner with your family. But I think that is normal after the Olympics. I hope it goes a little bit down after a while.
Q: You are one of only two Belgians in the end to come away with gold in this Olympics. Did crossing the line in the Belgian jersey and winning a gold for your country feel different to winning for BMC in the regular calendar?
GVA: Yes for sure. The Olympics is so much bigger than anything. Also, in cycling some riders start to learn this. Before it was always something that they had to go to and were really not really motivated about. But in the last ten, twelve years I think it gets bigger and bigger.
For me the Olympics were always the highest thing that you could reach. I was in London, I was so happy I could just go. If you can represent our country with five guys only in the Olympic Games I think you have to be happy and respectful that you are there. That is what I was this year.
I just wanted to do a good result for my country. Also my dad went to the Olympics in Moscow in ‘80. When I heard him talking about the Olympics in Moscow, for him it was the highlight in his career. For me it was also one of the highlights, just to participate. Then in the last kilometre I realised I could be Olympic champion.
This moment when you come over the finish is a moment of happiness. You realise that it is going to be one of the best feelings of your career. That is how it was.
Q: This has been your best season so far. But would winning Flanders next season top this?
GVA: Yeah, for sure. I think if I can say one goal that I want to do in my career, it is for sure winning a big Classic like Flanders. It is for me still the most important race. It is the race I love the most also.
I was a few times close. I was second, third. Also this year I had a good feeling that I could for sure go for a podium. But that is how things go.
I still have a few years to go. I think I have it in me [to win]. Hopefully next year it comes. But it is only one day and so many things can happen. You always have to prepare well and hopefully one day it all comes together.
Q: You mentioned the world championships. It is very different course to the Olympic Games. What are your expectations of what you and Belgium can do at the worlds?
GVA: I think it is a bit the same [as Rio]. The parcours is different. There are not the same favourites. We have a strong team but we are not big favourites for Qatar as we don’t have a big sprinter any more in our team.
I think Boonen is going pretty well. We have a few young guys who have a good sprint but not like Degenkolb or Greipel or Cavendish. So we have to be a little bit conservative.
Hopefully we have this day a lot of wind. That is what we can do, I think. In echelon races we can be strong and we can go with a small group to the finish, hopefully. That is what we have to hope for.
The temperature there it is going to be really high. People always say it is going to be a bunch sprint, but I am not so sure about this. I think it is going to be a really hard race with the wind and the heat. Then also on the local circuit is really technical and tricky.
It is going to be a hard race and a strong guy who is going to win the race. It is going to be a Classics guy with a good punch at the end.
Note: This interview was slightly edited for clarity.