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ROUBAIX, France (CT) – For several years Greg Van Avermaet was known as a rider who experienced more near-misses than major victories. However, in the past 10 months he has fully put paid to that reputation.
Last August the Belgian triumphed in the Olympic road race, defying pre-race predictions that a specialist climber would win. On Sunday he recorded another milestone, taking the first Monument victory of his career when he scooped Paris-Roubaix.
He outsprinted Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step) and Sebastian Langeveld (Cannondale-Drapac) in the famous velodrome, earning himself one of the race’s distinctive cobblestone trophies.
Commenting afterwards, he referred to his previous reputation as a nearly man.
“The Olympics is always going to be my biggest victory,” he said in the post-race press conference in the newer ‘Stab’ velodrome [named after former world champion Jean Stablinski]. “But it is good to have also now a Monument, otherwise you will keep asking when am I going to win one …”
Van Avermaet has had a superb spring, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, taking second in Strade Bianche, and then raising his arms in both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem.
He was one of the strongest in last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders but lost the chance of victory when he, Peter Sagan and Oliver Naesen were involved in a crash close to the finish. That put paid to their chances of reeling in lone breakaway rider Philippe Gibert.
Van Avermaet was best of the rest, but second place was initially tough to take.
“I was disappointed after the race, for sure,” he said. “Because I was starting with the idea that I was going to win. Things happened, and you become second. You have to be disappointed if you had the legs maybe to win.
“But then also the day after, I am the first guy to be happy and to say it was a great season so far. I was not really down, it is just how things go. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
As is crucial in sport, he used that setback as hunger.
“I was motivated to do other good races,” he explained. “To be honest, I was not expecting to win Roubaix, but I was going with a good motivation to try to do my best. To try to go as far as possible, like I always do. That is what came out. Maybe the race that I didn’t expect to win, but I won it.
“So I am really happy that I have Roubaix, and next year I will try again for Flanders.”
‘Now I am going to win’
Van Avermaet, 31, spoke in his post-race press conference about his journey from a near-champion to a proven winner.
He’d previously said that beating Peter Sagan to win a Tour de France stage in 2015 was an important turning point. Since then he has kept building, with triumph in the 2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad another important step.
The Olympic road race, though, was crucial.
“For sure I am happy that I am finally in this spot,” he said, talking about how things turned around. “Like you said, I tried several years to be sitting here and winning these kind of races. I always believed that I could do it but sometimes you also need the results and finally getting this first spot.
“For sure winning helps. If you win, you get more confident, the team gets more confident and it goes easier. All the small things, I think, also.”
He gave an example of how that has shaped his current approach.
“Before I would come in Roubaix on the track and I would say I will try to do a good result. But now I come in the velodrome and I said, ‘now I am going to win.’ This small difference in mindset makes a big difference in the end result.”
Van Avermaet had to draw on his new approach when he had a setback during yesterday’s race. Things started off with a lightning-quick opening hour of racing, a time when riders tried to impose the traditional long-range break. No move was able to gain much time.
He later ran into problems in the Wallers sector, describing it as “a really bad moment” and clarifying what happened.
“It was actually my derailleur,” he said. “The corner before, somebody hit my derailleur. It was not working any more. I tried to reset it before the cobbles. But when you hit reset, it goes from left to right, and then it went into my wheel.
“Probably if you say where is the moment that you want to be in front, it is that moment. So it was not easy to come back, but I think everybody kept on riding. That is also what I said in the radio, just keep on riding. Then I tried to move up and then they had to help me.
“I think it was also a team effort at this moment. I always had guys with me who wanted to ride. I think also Jempy [Drucker] waited at one point to come back and to bring me there. I lost a lot of energy, for sure, because a few times I had to do it by myself.”
The other favourites were having a much easier go of things at that point in time. But Van Avermaet didn’t lose faith in his chances.
“It was not great but I still believed that I could make it,” he said. “The race was still long and if I came back to the front, I could recover a little bit. The race was open again. And also Daniel [Oss], I think he did a really strong race and he helped me in the end to position myself for the last Carrefour.
“Today I think the team really did everything that they could. They did all the effort they had to do and in the end, it made a big difference to bring me back.”
‘Still a long way to go,’ to echo Boonen’s career
The timing of Van Avermaet’s win will be reassuring for Belgian cycling fans. One of their most successful riders ever, Tom Boonen, hung up his wheels after Sunday’s race. However with the BMC Racing Team rider winning Paris-Roubaix, it seems the immediate future is secure.
“I think also it is nice to win the last race of Tom,” he said. “I looked yesterday at Wikipedia to see all of his results. It is really impressive, I think, what he won. He won four times here, and a lot of big races. It is good to be part of his career.”
So, does he feel that he can equal the palmares of his compatriot?
“No. It is hard,” he answered. “I think I am a different rider to Tom. More a climber than a sprinter. Tom is a different kind of rider to me. Every guy is making his career. But to get the victories of Tom are going to be impossible, for sure, because he has more than 100, and I have 31 now. I still have a long way to go.”
A journalist at the conference then noted that the previous Boonen/Cancellara rivalry is one which could potentially be replaced by a Van Avermaet/Sagan series of battles. Van Avermaet didn’t want to say this would be the case, saying the results will determine if the parallel is justified.
However he said that he will do what he can to be as successful as possible.
“I think Peter is a really strong rider, hard to beat. I think I will just focus on myself,” he said. “I think I am now finally where I want to be. I want to keep this a bit longer, I think. To come here was really hard and to stay here will be probably harder.
“I hope cycling lives from these battles. I hope I can be there for several years, and Peter is such a big talent that he is going to be there for sure. I like his racing style and I think he can do pretty well.”
‘I think I’m able to do a good race there, but I want to win Flanders’
Van Avermaet might have been expected to be ecstatic but, in the conference at least, there was little sign of that. That’s perhaps a reflection of his ambition — his next race is already on his mind.
“Next week [I will do] Amstel,” Van Avermaet said. “It is a race I like also. And it is one of the races where I like to go. I also have always the feeling that I can do something there.
“I will try to enjoy the moment. Amstel is always on my programme. Tonight I will make a little party, but tomorrow I will think about Amstel.”
Further ahead, he believes that he can challenge for other major one-day races. His victory at the Olympics stunned those who felt a Grand Tour specialist would be the likely winner, with Van Avermaet able to raise his game on the day in question.
That success showed that he can thrive on hilly courses. When he was 25, his seventh place finish in the 2011 Liège-Bastogne-Liège also hinted at the ability to target more than just Flanders and Roubaix.
He said he’d like to return to the Ardennes Classic to see what he can achieve.
“I have several options to play, I think,” he said. “I think Liège is, for sure, going to be one time on my programme. I like this race. I know the region pretty well, I know all the climbs. For sure it is going to be one of the goals, but when it is going to happen I don’t know.
“I think I am able to do a good race there, but from now I first want to win Flanders. I do think it is possible get a result in the future, but it is hard to say when.”