A lingering war of words between the pair may have kept the Belgian press entertained during the off-season, but Greg Van Avermaet moved to downplay his supposedly strained relationship with Philippe Gilbert at the BMC training camp in Denia last week.
Uneasy bedfellows at Omega Pharma-Lotto, Van Avermaet flew the nest at the beginning of 2011 to join BMC, but the pair have since been reunited by Gilbert’s arrival at the squad. Despite Van Avermaet’s solid debut campaign with BMC last year, which was capped by a canny Paris-Tours victory, Gilbert has expressed reservations about his fellow countryman’s ability to act as a co-leader of the team in the classics in 2012.
In particular, Gilbert pointedly cited the example of last April’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, when Van Avermaet was dropped from the winning break when the pace shot up on the Côte de Saint-Nicholas with 5km to go.
“I think we are quite similar riders but Philippe is on a higher level than me at the moment,” a diplomatic Van Avermaet admitted to reporters on the Costa Blanca. “He won all the races that he could win last year and I just tried to improve every year to also reach my goals. It’s kind of an honour that he’s here on the team with me. I think he’s a strong rider and I’m going to try to work for him and try to improve myself too and get to the level he’s at right now.”
So far, so conciliatory, and when pressed further on his relations with Gilbert, the 26-year-old Van Avermaet broke into a sheepish grin. “We’ve just talked about other stuff outside of cycling so far,” he laughed shyly. “People think in Belgium we don’t talk, but I think we have a good relationship with each other and I think it will work out really well for next year.”
While received wisdom suggests that Van Avermaet will be shunted down the classics pecking order at BMC due to the arrival of Gilbert and Thor Hushovd, the Belgian pointed out that he already showed his ability to operate as a foil to others last spring.
“We have a lot of big riders on the team now, but before we also had Ballan, Hincapie and it was already a strong team,” he noted. “This year it’s a bit stronger, but I’m just happy the team is confident in me. They will play my card at some moments, and at some other moments I’ll work for other guys, and I’m happy with that. For me, it’s maybe a good point that they are here and there is not so much pressure for the classics on me.”
The tail-end of 2011 saw Van Avermaet take a large stride forwards in delivering on his considerable potential when he landed his first classic victory at Paris-Tours by clinically disposing of Marco Marcato on the Avenue de Grammont. He agreed that from a psychological standpoint, the win had been something of a liberation.
“Yeah, it was an important win for me,” he nodded. “I had a lot of nice results already in the classics but the difference between second and first is big. It was important for my self-confidence
“I’m only 26 but I had already been waiting a long time to win a big classic, so once it’s there, you’re very happy and you feel a bit more confident in the next races. It also gives the team the confidence to believe in me.”
One of the first signs of that burgeoning confidence came at Milan-San Remo last year, when Van Avermaet was the surprise leader over the summit of the Poggio after seizing the initiative on the descent of the Cipressa. “It was a good feeling to be the first guy on the Poggio,” he said. “Not every year is the same and last year we had that crash on Le Manie beforehand, but I hope to be up there on the Poggio again this year.”
Not surprisingly, however, the centrepiece of Van Avermaet’s season comes two weeks later on the rocky road to Oudenaarde. “For me the most important race is of the year is always the Tour of Flanders,” he said. “Like every Belgian I’m always looking forward to it, and hopefully I can win it.”
But Gilbert, too, covets De Ronde victory and, at least according to Thor Hushovd, has made it the principal target of his spring campaign. “We’ll see what’s going to happen,” Van Avermaet said quietly. “Maybe I work for Philippe at a few races, and if I can have a chance when I’m good at some races, that’s enough for me.”