Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will mark the first target for Greg Van Avemaet this season, but that race pales in importance when compared to his big aim, the Tour of Flanders.
Van Avermaet has a long history in the race, finishing eighth in his second attempt back in 2008, and then placing fourth in 2012, seventh in 2013, second in 2014 and third in 2015.
He was one of the top favourites last year but crashed out, sustaining a fractured collarbone.
This year’s edition features a modified route which has special significance for Van Avermaet, but he says he has mixed feelings about the changes.
“Well, the good point it is that they are passing my home town, passing the place where I grew up. It is a special feeling. It is something strange,” he said.
“But I hope they don’t change too much the parcours any more. I am not a big fan… I was a fan of Bruges. I think it was the nicest start of the whole year there. There were so many people and so much atmosphere. So I don’t like the changes. [But] it is the organisers who decide, it is not me.”
The modified route was announced by organisers Flanders Classics back on November 30. The biggest standout was the reintroduction of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the famed climb which featured in many editions in the past but which was discontinued before the 2012 race.
The news gladdened many fans. However the Muur will be eighth out of the day’s 18 climbs, and so will likely have limited impact on the results. It previously was far closer to the finish.
“I like the Muur,” says Van Avermaet, speaking at the BMC Racing Team’s pre-season camp. “I am training almost every day on it. I really like the climb. But it is hard to fit in the parcours, I think. We go now from Oudenaarde back to Geraardsbergen and from Geraardsbergen back to Oudenaarde. It is hard.
“They tried to create something, it is not easy to change it. But one point is good, that the last 85 kilometres stays the same. That is the most important, and there we can make the difference.”
On career complications with Gilbert
Winning the Olympic road race last summer raised Van Avermaet’s stock considerably, and further underlined that he was no longer the rider previously known for near-misses.
His strong 2016 season ensured his BMC Racing Team would put full faith in him thereafter. Former world champion Philippe Gilbert left the squad, having had several inconsistent seasons.
Van Avermaet believes that his compatriot’s departure will give him increased opportunity.
“I would hope there are a few other races for me,” he said. “We always split it, me [targeting] Flanders and Roubaix. Phil came for Amstel and Liege. I never did an Amstel where I rode for myself. This is an option that now becomes open.
“I like Amstel. It is one of my favourite races. So I am happy that I can ride for myself there. So, yeah, I have more options to play.”
There were rumours of tension between Van Avermaet and Gilbert. He plays these down somewhat, while also admitting that their intense competitiveness as athletes did sometimes create strain.
“I always said I don’t have big problems with Phil. But, with me, we are the same type of riders. I have a lot of respect for his cycling career. But sometimes it was hard for me because I was the guy who wanted to come up and he was already there. So it was not easy.
“And every finish that was good for him was also good for me. We were the same type of rider. If you are in the same team, you cannot go full, full against each other. Sometimes it blocks a few people. That’s how it is. Sometimes it was hard, but I am looking forward to racing against him. I have no problems with him.
“We speak, we text each other. But sometimes the situation made it not that easy. Everybody tried to…Philip is a champion, he wants to win races. I want to do the same. That is sometimes hard in life.”
One bonus for the sport is that the two will have direct showdowns against each other in key events. Their different schedules limited such clashes in the past, but there is no such impediment to that now.
“He could not ride Flanders, but this year he can ride Flanders. For me in Amstel is about the same. So we will see.”
BMC Racing Team president Jim Ochowicz said in December that Van Avermaet will be the team’s designated leader in all the Classics from Milan-San Remo to Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In fact, he will be protected from this weekend.
But does he believe he could hold form all the way to Liège?
“It is too early to say. I can do a big programme, but I don’t want to overdo it either.
“I think still the main thing is Flanders. First I want to win Flanders instead of thinking about Liège. So my focus will be on Flanders and Amstel I can also do well, but then after I will decide by myself if I can do Liège.”
He feels the biggest issue is that the types of riders who tend to focus on the Northern Classics and the Ardennes Classics are different. Because of that, a second, fresher wave of competitors step forward for the hillier races.
Van Avermaet’s solution is to concentrate first on winning Flanders, and then try to do likewise in Liège. He says that time will show if he can do both in the same year, or will need different seasons to achieve success in each.
Either way, the Olympic champion is determined to top the podium in both events. If he does that, it will fully underline his versatility as a Classics rider.