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Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad marks the beginning of the Classic season, the point where the big one-day specialists step forward and show their cards. Defending champion Greg Van Avermaet will be one of those, even if he’s still building prime form. The Olympic road race champion relives his biggest win, talks about how his life and mentality has been transformed since taking gold, and sets out what will be his biggest goal of the year.
When Greg Van Avermaet suffered a bad ankle injury in mid-November, it appeared almost certain that his Classics chances would be affected. He fell while mountain biking and incurred a non-displaced distal left fibula fracture. Surgery was needed, and his season build-up was hampered.
One month after the crash, he spoke to the press at the BMC Racing Team’s December training camp. He was still on crutches then, and admitted that he had to be careful not overdo things.
While he was already on the bike, he said that he was behind in his training. And, therefore, behind his rivals.
At the time the Olympic champion accepted that he could well be below par during the early races. “I feel already like training more, but I just have to stay a little bit more quiet,” he explained. “I think I will be a little bit later in [form] this season.
“But when the big goals will be there, I have to be at 100 percent level again.”
It’s a measure of the work he has put in that he is where he is now. On February 1 he was part of the victorious BMC Racing Team in the TTT at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. In the two subsequent stages he was eighth and ninth, already rubbing shoulders with riders who had a more typical build-up to the season.
Equally importantly, he had a stint in the race’s yellow jersey, giving him a further morale boost.
The good indications continued after that. Less than a week ago he raced to a fine podium place on stage four of the Tour of Oman. Van Avermaet finished just behind Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Merida) in the gallop to the line and, in doing so, he proved he is well on track.
This weekend he will spearhead the BMC Racing Team in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The race gets the Classic season underway and the Belgian will aim for a strong result.
His recovery is already ahead of schedule, and few would bet against him being at 100 percent for the Tour of Flanders and beyond.
‘Finally I am where I want to be’
Regarded for several years as a nearly man, a rider who went close to big wins but often seemed to lose out, Van Avermaet made a big leap forward in 2016.
He won the Omploop Het Niewsblad in February, outsprinting no less a rider than the world champion Peter Sagan. “I’m never really winning that much,” he admitted afterwards, clearly also surprised by the result.
That got the ball rolling. He went on to win Tirreno-Adriatico, placed a solid fifth in Milan-San Remo and then raced into Tour de France yellow for the first time in his career when he won stage five.
Van Avermaet headed to the Olympic Games regarded as an outsider, but won on a course many felt was too hard for him. He capped things off with second to Sagan in the GP Cycliste de Québec and first in the GP Cycliste de Montreal.
“This is my best year so far,” he said at BMC’s pre-season training camp. “I had this a crash, but other than that everything went well. Okay, I missed my favourite races like Flanders, Roubaix and Amstel. But I think Tour de France, Olympic Games, Tirreno and Nieuwsblad, Montreal made a lot of good things about this season. There were more ups than downs.
“I was really, really happy with my season, especially with my victory in Rio. I think I was consistent the whole year again, from [the Tour of] Qatar until the worlds in Qatar. I was there.”
At the BMC Racing Team camp, Van Avermaet had the demeanour of someone who was very satisfied with how things were going for him. Years of near-misses had given way to success. He was on the crest of a wave, and winning some of the sport’s biggest races.
“This was my main objective,” he said. “So much big victories. Finally I can say I am where I want to be. I had to fight a lot of years for this place, but finally I made it. I’m 31 years old now and I think I’m on top of cycling now in the Classics.”
There is, it seems, a sense of destiny, or potential, being realised.
“Finally I could spread more out to the races what I thought was in me,” he states. “I was finally getting big victories in the season.”
Viewing the change as something that happened last season is, he suggests, misleading. Instead, he points back to the 2015 Tour de France and his stage win into Rodez.
That stage finished on difficult drag to the line and he went head to head with Sagan. Many expected the Slovakian to win but Van Avermaet went from a long way out, having the confidence to lead out the gallop and the strength to hold on to the line.
“I think this was a big victory,” he says. “But this also made a little click in myself to get more confidence. I think 2015 was a really nice year already. Maybe not that big for international people, but for me was a really nice year. Good victories, always there.
“I think 2016 gave this extra touch with, for sure, the Olympic medal. But also being there in every race, every Classic on the front, trying to do something. In the end it came out well. Like I always said, there isn’t that much difference between second and first.
“Everything has to go right.
“Everything went the way I wanted it to be.”
Stunning his family in securing gold
Back in 1980 the Olympic Games were held in Moscow. The US was absent because of its Russian boycott, denying riders such as Greg LeMond the chance to take part. In fact 64 other countries also decided not to travel, including Canada, China, West Germany, Norway plus several from South America, Africa and Asia.
Belgium was one of those that ignored the boycott and participated. Amongst its continent was one Ronald Van Avermaet, a 21 year old who went on to a modest pro career.
Greg Van Avermaet is his son and grew up hearing all about the Games.
“He was so proud about it,” he says. “Always talking about it. He had a medal that you get just to participate. He was like, ‘huh huh, I went to the Olympics. You see what I can do?’”
Cycling in the Olympics was limited to amateur riders until the 1996 Games. As a result it has taken time for it to grow in prestige: until recently, for example, winning a world title was seen by some as more prestigious than an Olympic gold medal.
Van Avermaet long felt different about the Games, though. His father’s preoccupation with the Olympics is likely one reason.
“I went to London. I had the feeling, ‘is this what I can do at the highest level?’
That first Olympic performance was modest. In 2012 he was 92nd, 40 seconds behind the winner Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan). However the participation triggered something in him, including a need to really focus on the Games and treat the contest like non-cyclists do.
“You can see how other athletes are working four years for one goal,” Van Avermaet explains. “Yet we are still these kind of riders who just go to the Olympics because there is a race there, and then hurry up to go back to the Eneco Tour because there is another race. That is a bit crazy.
“I saw other athletes preparing four years for this one race, for this one goal, and then it was over. So I had this always in my mind. I had this in my feeling. I’d say, ‘if I now go back to the Olympics, I will do everything for it.
“‘[I thought] I’ll go [all out] to the finish line. Maybe I’ll be two minutes behind. Maybe five minutes behind. But that be like, ‘this is what I can do.’ And, with this mindset, I went to Rio.”
The course was an extremely difficult one, with much more climbing than London 2012. It was also tougher than many recent world championships. Indeed rainbow jersey holder Peter Sagan decided not to ride because of this reason.
Because of the terrain, much of the pre-race expectations were focussed on Grand Tour riders and specialist climbers, including those who would tend to thrive in the Ardennes Classics.
Few identified Van Avermaet as a big favourite, yet he proved them all wrong.
“I had a little bit of luck, but I was in really good shape,” he says, describing how things turned out. “It was maybe not my perfect parcours but I held on. I tried to open up the race a little bit earlier. Everything went perfect, and then, finally I had this big victory.”
Afterwards, he spoke to his father about the result.
“He was really proud,” he says. However it appears his father hadn’t believed in his chances. “He said to some people I know, ‘I don’t know what Greg is going to do there, it is too hard for him. He is always talking about the Olympics, he should rest up and prepare some other goal because the Olympics is going to be too hard for him.’
“So, yes, he was so surprised that it finally happened. [During the race] he was like, ‘oh, he is still there.’ Then he was like, ‘oh, maybe he has a medal.’ Then he was like, ‘now it is going to be the gold.’”
It’s possible to imagine the dizzying mix of excitement, surprise and elation that his father, and his family, must have felt.
“It is a nice feeling for sure at the home,” says Van Avermaet. “I can imagine if I have a child that is also going to the Olympics… For them it is a dream.
“He is the kind of rider who also was professional, for three years. I make his dreams come true a little bit.”
Saying no to Monaco
Since the Games, life has changed for Van Avermaet. In cycling-crazy Belgium, winning a big race can make you famous. But being one of just two Belgian sportspeople to win an Olympic title in Rio? That’s huge.
As a result he has been besieged in public. Whether shopping or eating out, the requests for autographs and photographs keep coming.
“It is nice in a way, but sometimes it is hard,” he says. Still, he accepts that it is part of the job.
For Van Avermaet, he makes a distinction between when he is ‘on’ and when he is ‘off.’ If he’s in team kit, photos are fine. But, he says, if he is in normal clothing and private places, he wants to be able to relax. To be just treated like a normal guy.
One solution used by other athletes is to simply move away. To emigrate and thus get out of the public eye and the press focus.
To his credit, he doesn’t want to take that option.
“Sometimes I think about it,” he says. “I think Monaco is pretty quiet. But everyone goes there for taxes, there is no other reason, I think.
“I love my country. I’m 31. I have my house in Belgium. I have my family in Belgium. I do think money is a really important thing for everybody – we have to feed people. But for me I just try to stay in Belgium as long as possible. I pay my taxes there. I try to help people.
“For me, at 31, it is not worth it to move there. I am happy to be in Belgium.”
Even if success has come at that price, he is hungry for more. He’s worked hard to come back from his injury and to build form for 2017 and now, with the Classic season about to begin, his big push for victories will start.
It may take time to reach 100 percent, but that’s fine. In his mind, April 2 is the biggest target of the year.
“Flanders is the most important,” he says. “For a Flemish rider, a Belgian rider, it is really important to win. I say this every year, almost [smiles], I’ve never done it, but I want to finally get it.
“It’s a race that suits me more than Roubaix. Roubaix is a really hard race for me. If I come over the finish in Roubaix I am always dead.
“I do ride well there, I had a few good results before. I do think I can win it. But Flanders is something [else] with me. I am never really tired when I get over the finish in Flanders. I only get even better in the end. In Roubaix it is the opposite, I have to fight to get to the finish line.
“I like both races but I think with the short climbs, Flanders is better for me. It is easier.”
Van Avermaet knows that winning De Ronde as Olympic champion would seal his place in legend. Some riders in his position might feel the weight of expectation, yet he shrugs off pressure.
“Finally I don’t have to prove myself,” he says. “I am more relaxed. I am thinking more focussed. It is such a good feeling to have. I won’t have to prove myself any more and this helps. It is a good feeling.”
When he compares how he was heading into the 2016 season, it is night and day.
“I am more confident than ever, I think. I did some good victories, I beat some good guys. This always helps.
“I was also growing every year. I was pretty confident last year that I could do it. But you can always say, ‘I can do this, I can do that.’
“If it never comes, nobody believes you any more. So, finally, I kept my word.”