Silver linings roadbook: Van Avermaet tries to keep things in perspective

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Most of the time, 2016 Olympic champ and 2017 Paris-Roubaix winner Greg Van Avermaet spends his days traveling around the globe, competing in bike races, or training for them.

The Greg Van Avermaet that spoke to a handful of reporters this week via Zoom, however, was just coming off a busy afternoon spent at home with his kids. He isn’t riding his bike with friends outside nearly as much as he normally would these days, and he isn’t racing outside at all. Meanwhile, his team is in discussions about how to navigate growing financial concerns, with news emerging shortly after the interview that CCC has already cut most of its staff and drastically reduced rider pay.

So if you’re wondering what life in these strange times is like for a pro cyclist, for the Olympic champ no less, well: He finds himself stuck at home, doing his best to entertain his kids all day, chatting on Zoom, and talking to coworkers about the uncertain future of the company he works for—just like countless people all over the world right now. It’s a strange new normal that the Olympic champ and so many others are adjusting to, but Van Avermaet is adjusting just the same.

He still has his job at the moment (and he is a very successful pro athlete, after all) and the situation in Belgium right now is better than it is in Italy or Spain. As he pointed out, a national lockdown has only changed his own circumstances so much.

“In general, we are still quite lucky in Belgium,” he said. “The good thing is, [in Belgium] you are still able to go out into nature, out on the road, by bike or running, to do some exercising. For this, my life is not so affected because it’s actually quite close to a cycling life, quite boring: training, reading, eating sleeping.

“Of course we don’t have the travel anymore, we don’t have the races anymore. That’s a bit strange in this period because it’s kind of the Classics period in Belgium where people here are excited to watch races.”

For Van Avermaet and so many other people in Flanders, that’s a bitter pill to swallow, but staying sane amid what could be months away from racing requires perspective, and Van Avermaet has already found that as he sees the way his compatriots have reacted to life without Classics racing.

Greg Van Avermaet ahead of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Photo: Tim van Wichelen//Cor Vos © 2020

“It’s quite hard for the people. You kind of feel what they are missing. Before you never really noticed because it’s part of the routine,” he said. “Now when they are missing it, you have those retro Sporza events, where they show the old editions. They showed San Remo, E3 Prijs, Gent-Wevelgem. People can choose on the website for what they want to see. And it seems a lot of people are watching, so you also feel that people are still interested in it.

“To be honest, on the road, a lot of people are talking, or screaming, ‘I hope you get to race soon!’ It’s quite a nice feeling in Belgium, everybody is almost more friendly to me, trying to interact a little bit and they also hope that we are back on the bike. It’s part of the tradition.”

In lieu of the real thing, Van Avermaet will be taking place in a virtual edition of the Tour of Flanders on Sunday that organizers are calling De Ronde 2020: Lockdown Edition. He will be one of 13 riders taking on the final 32 kilometers of the race on the Bkool platform in a competition that will be shown on Sporza.

On the one hand, at least it’s something. On the other hand, Van Avermaet isn’t sugarcoating the fact the virtual racing isn’t exactly the same for him.

“In general I’m not a big fan of virtual,” he said. “I love the real thing, you know? The positioning, the wind, different factors like stress, how to approach this kind of stuff. At Flanders it’s more tactics than when you’re riding on the rollers.”

That said, Van Avermaet is happy to participate in Sunday’s virtual Tour of Flanders, pointing out that it is “something to give to people in times where the crisis gets hard, it’s something to look forward to.”

Beyond the Classics, Van Avermaet also won’t be racing in the Olympics any time soon as the Tokyo Games have been postponed to 2021. That’s another tough one for the reigning champ, who acknowledged that organizers had to be realistic about the challenges of putting on an event in 2020, but finds himself ruing a lost opportunity.

Greg Van Avermaet riding up the Molenberg at the 2020 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Photo: ©kramon

“What can I say? The feeling was good this year, and I think I’m getting older myself,” he said. “I think it will be hard, it’s not perfect for it to be next year. I was confident that I could still do something with the course and having Classics, Tour, Olympics, and now it’s changed a little bit. Next year I hope to have the same shape but you never know. But you have to take it how it comes.”

Whether Van Avermaet’s CCC team is still as he is gearing up for the 2021 Olympics this time next year is uncertain at the moment—CCC’s future is unclear as the CCC footwear company that sponsors the squad is facing financial difficulties, and reportedly looking for ways to pull out of its sponsorship deal.

While Van Avermaet still has his 2020 contract with CCC, after the interview the team announced that many of his coworkers – the majority of team staff – have been told their contracts have been suspended. Riders, meanwhile have taken a huge reduction in salary.

“A company like CCC, Giant Bikes, our biggest sponsors, are suffering from the crisis,” Van Avermaet said.

He acknowledged that it made sense for riders to take pay cuts under the circumstances.

At the moment, like so many others in lockdown around the world, Van Avermaet still has a full plate even without the normal racing routine that his job typically entails. With two young kids at home, he and his wife have their hands full.

So full, in fact, that he could not offer any recommendations when asked what he’s watching on Netflix amid the national lockdown.

“Actually I’m not seeing anything. I am so busy with my kids at that I have almost no time. I’m respecting even more my wife at the moment,” he said. “People are having a hard time keeping themselves busy, but at the moment we only hit the couch at 9, 9:30 because we are still cleaning what the kids were doing all day.”

When he’s not taking care of his kids or training, Van Avermaet is keeping up with the news—or with friends.

“We do once a week a small chat once a week with Messenger or WhatsApp,” he said, making a special note of how much he loves using filters, like the one that allows him to appear to be eating a hamburger while talking to friends. “That’s kind of cool.”

Much like the virtual Tour of Flanders he will ride on Sunday, it’s not the real thing, of course. At the end of the day, he would probably rather be climbing the actual Oude Kwaremont this weekend and then celebrating in person with friends afterward—but Van Avermaet has always been the sort to look on the bright side. After all, it was only after a decade of Classics campaigns that he picked up his first Monument win. More than most, he knows how to keep a positive attitude and find silver linings.

“Now, I’ve spoken to probably more people than in my whole life of living in this house,” Van Avermaet said. “You get to know each other a little bit better, neighbors I never saw before. Contact with people, you will appreciate it more. Hopefully we can keep this afterwards.”

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