Just over a bike length. That’s the distance that separated Greg Van Avermaet from victory in two of the biggest one-day races in world last year but such are the minute margins for error that the East Flandrian was left ruing his sprint finishes in both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders.
Out-shone by Ian Stannard in the former, out-foxed, andn out-thought by Fabian Cancellara in the latter, Van Avermaet was the nearly man of last spring.
Not that the campaign was failure, by any means. The Belgian led the line admirably for BMC Racing in a year of transition that saw Thor Hushovd creak towards retirement and Philippe Gilbert focus on the Ardennes. But for a few of what Van Avermaet calls ‘some small mistakes’ he could already be a Monument winner.
Ifs and buts don't mean anything, because no matter how many times Van Avermaet relives those sprints in his head he still comes out second best, however, as he tells Cyclingnews he’s ready to make that final step - one from candidate of perennial potential to thoroughbred winner.
“My confidence from last year has taken a step up and that’s big thing for me,” he tells Cyclingnews.
“Last year I was finally there in all the big races. It was a good step for me. The rest I just have to see how it goes but that part on improving strength is important because you have to remember that I only came into cycling pretty late on, so I’m still growing. I feel like, even though I’m nearly 30, that I have more power than before. That adds to confidence and I know that from there I’ll be where I need to be for the Classics.”
At 29, Van Avermaet should be in his prime and once again he enters the Classics with BMC Racing’s full backing as their leader for the cobbles. Perhaps if Hushovd had been a few years younger or had Taylor Phinney not suffered such a horrendous crash last season the role may not have been so definitive but after a strong 2014, Van Avermaet’s performance deserves another tilt at leadership.
On the face of it the former soccer player turned Classics specialist has the complete package. He can read a race, his sprint is decent enough - remember he’s won the points jersey in a Grand Tour – he can handle the bergs, and his team are a well-rounded unit.
So what’s been missing in the past? There are quarters that have mentioned that Van Avemaet needed to toughen up, become more ruthless in finales, and that position certainly holds water when last year’s Classics are concerned but for the man himself, it comes down to a concoction of elements.
“It’s just that little bit of luck really. I’m making good choices in races and I’m always there. I can read a race but it’s more about the final ten kilometres where there are maybe some small mistakes that have cost me the win. That’s what has to change. It’s luck, it’s confidence but if it all clicks together then I think that I can beat all those guys, even though I know it’s not easy.”
“For sure Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Elite was a big disappointment for me because I thought that I could win against Stannard in the sprint but the conditions weren’t great for me and I was so cold that my body couldn’t react. In Flanders it could have been better if I started the sprint from back and a little bit later instead of being in their sights.”
“But if you don’t win races then you always look at the mistakes but the problem is that it’s always different riders, and different scenarios. Maybe, it’s taking me a bit longer to learn some things but last year I saw that I was moving in the right direction and this year should see take a good victory.”
Over the off-season Van Avermaet has diligently worked on his sprint. In the Tour of Qatar, earlier this month, the word in the peloton was that Van Avermaet had returned from winter’s hibernation in better shape than most and he was often at the head of the race, trying to spark action in the cross-winds. Perhaps it’s the early signs of the all-new and aggressive Van Avermaet.
“I think my sprint is pretty good but then I didn’t win two important races against Stannard and Cancellara,” he adds.
“That was actually a point I’ve worked on in the winter. I’ve always had belief in my sprint in long races but it’s just about bringing it out in the right moment. I know I have it.”
If Van Avermaet is to fulfill his potential he will of course need the help of his team. In the last twelve months the American team have morphed from a collection of ‘stars’ with full palmares but some fading legs into a fully fledged team in which collective success is prized above individual status.
A lot of that change rests at the feet of Allan Peiper who had the unenviable task of turning around a team that underachieved and lacked direction. Sometimes cycling has the habit of over-complicating matters but Peiper’s stripped down style of management was exactly the tonic the team needed – clear goals, clear and defined roles for each rider and when harmony was reached the results soon followed.
“Allen had a good influence on the team. He created a good programme for the team and he made sure that everyone had their own goals and targets,” says Van Avermaet.
“That was important because I knew when and where I had to be good. That trust gave me confidence in Flanders. It was the first time I was there for myself and I took that chance. I like the way the team works now and Allan made a big difference there.”
This new confidence coupled with the full-backing of the team and his sharper sprint will be crucial for Van Avermaet this season if he is to deliver the big win he and his team crave. The time is now.