Over the years, first at Lotto and then at BMC, Greg Van Avermaet has grown used to playing second fiddle to Philippe Gilbert, but the traditional hierarchy will be reversed in the Belgian team at the World Championships road race in Ponferrada on Sunday.
By his own admission, Gilbert has simply not done enough in the second part of the season to justify the leader’s role in Carlo Bomans’ squad. Van Avermaet, by contrast, arrives in Spain in what he has described as the form of his life. Strong performances in Canada earlier this month raised hopes; a brace of victories at the GP de Wallonie and GP Impanis last week has brought expectation.
“It’s my first year with the status of leader in this race, so that brings a bit of pressure, but that’s good,” Van Avermaet said. “It’s my first time and maybe I’ll benefit from this in the years to come.”
Although Van Avermaet is his country’s form rider for these Worlds, it was telling that at the team’s press conference on Friday, the vast majority of questions from the Belgian press were aimed at Gilbert and Tom Boonen, world champions in 2012 and 2005 respectively.
“I don’t have the results that they have in the Worlds or the big classics, but I’m getting there,” Van Avermaet said quietly. “Not too quickly, but I’m getting there, and I think I’m capable of winning a big race.”
Since landing Paris-Tours in 2011, Van Avermaet has appeared a man perpetually on the brink of a major breakthrough. This spring he was handed the leadership of BMC’s cobbled classics squad and responded with a string of aggressive showings, but only two near misses to show for his efforts, as he placed second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders.
“I think I’ve had good results all year and that’s not an easy thing to do. The wins in Impanis and Wallonnie were important too, they weren’t easy races to win,” he said.
Gilbert’s condition an unknown
For his part, Gilbert did manage to conjure up a classic win in the spring, as he re-enacted his Worlds winning attack on the Cauberg to claim a third victory in Amstel Gold Race. The second half of his season has been focused squarely on the world championships – he skipped the Tour de France for the first time since 2010 – but he has been grappling for form so far this autumn. Unlike the past two years, the Vuelta a España offered no morale-boosting stage win.
“I haven’t had big results in a while,” Gilbert said. “I’m a bit in the unknown with my form and my condition because I’ve shown nothing in the past few weeks then but that’s allowed me to come to these Worlds without stress or pressure. If something happens, it’s a bonus. If not, then so be it.”
“We’re realists. We’re not the top favourites, apart maybe from Greg, who’s won recently and showed good form. Tom and I have been more low-key than normal before the Worlds but maybe we can take advantage of that.”
“It’s not like Valkenburg, when Philippe was in incredible form,” Van Avermaet said. “It’s a bit different here: we have a good team but not a leader with huge results. I think Spain and Italy will be the strongest teams.”
Boonen is Belgium’s option in the event of a large group sprint, while Van Avermaet and Gilbert will seek to police moves in the closing laps, and both were in agreement that the sinuous final descent of Mirador could prove more decisive than the climb itself.
“It might come down to whoever is the best descender out of the climbers, maybe, because there’s a climb and a technical descent,” Gilbert warned. “There are a lot of riders capable of climbing well but there are fewer who can descend quickly.
“That descent doesn’t look fast on television, but on the bike it’s very, very fast with few dangerous corners, so you have to be very attentive. If you brake, you can lose 50 metres so you can’t make any errors.”