The Belgian conundrum: How will Van Avermaet and Gilbert work together?

Classics winners show a united front but both want to win

As the final day of the 2017 World Championships begins in Bergen on Sunday, Belgium has still to win a medal of any colour, meaning the hopes of one of cycling's most passionate nations rests on the shoulders on Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert.

Van Avermaet is a born and bred Flandrian, while Gilbert hails from Remouchamps in the heart of French-speaking Wallonie. They were once fierce rivals while at BMC, feuding for the role of team leader for the one-day Classics. They became direct rivals in 2017 with Gilbert moving to Quick-Step Floors and winning the Tour of Flanders, while Van Avermaet was second. He equalled the score by winning Paris-Roubaix and the two will start Sunday's road race with similar palmares, equal ambitions and similar determination to pull on the rainbow jersey.

The Belgian national coach Kevin De Weert has played down any problems between the two, but like the Belgian fans, he expects a result.

"I don't care how they race as long as they finish first and second," he joked, trying to play down any concerns about their rivalry, but unable to ignore the giant elephant in the hotel conference room for their final press meeting in Bergen.

While some riders, including Peter Sagan, arrived late on Friday, the Belgian squad has been in Bergen since Tuesday, allowing Van Avermaet and Gilbert to spend time together. Sitting side by side in front of the attentive and ever inquisitive Belgian media, there was an air of respect between them. Not a friendship, but at least respect. "I think all the big nations have more than one leader, even in the big pro teams it's like that.

I think we're professionals and so we won't race against each other," Gilbert said as they two took turns answering questions.

"We're both strong riders and we're both going to ride the finale, I think that's a big advantage over other nations. We've got to use that as our strength," Van Avermaet said.

While Peter Sagan opted not to recon the 19km road circuit in Bergen, the Belgians have seen it several times during training rides, sneaking onto the road during the other races.

It struck both Van Avermaet and Gilbert as harder than they had imagined on paper but dry conditions will smooth out some of the rolling roads.

"I think it's a nice course. I think it's a good course for us. It's pretty technical and so that makes for a harder race, which is good for us," Van Avermaet said.

"You have sprints after each corner, there's a down section after the finish, there's a cobbled sector, the route twists and turns. The climb is not super hard but the run into the climb is important. It's going be quite tricky," Gilbert added, giving a more technical analysis.

"The climb is a three minute effort; that's not long but if you do it at full gas from bottom it's painful. It will select the same kind of riders, those who can go deep and then recover quickly. It's for the puncheur."

"We need to make the race hard," Van Avermaet added. "Not too crazy because it's a 270km race, so it is a hard day but we need to make it hard so that a strong rider wins. I think the combined strength of the Belgian team makes us one of the strongest."

Belgium's big rivals

Van Avermaet and Gilbert will divide out who they will follow and work with in any late attacks. Both will be hoping they get into the decisive move, with Van Avermaet slightly more confident of success if it comes down to a sprint of 30 or so riders.

They have identified their biggest rivals but do not seem to fear any of them.

"There are a lot of guys who can win on this parcour, it's pretty open, especially if it's dry all day," Van Avermaet said.

"Even a guy like Tom Dumoulin could do something in the finale. He's on the form of his life. Maybe even the sprinters can stay on and do something. You've got to worry about yourself and make good tactical decisions."

"Julian Alaphilippe too," Gilbert said, reminding everyone of his Quick-Step Floors teammate, who leads the French team.

"Trentin is also a favourite, he's not a dark horse, while Viviani could be a dark horse. He's been climbing well in the last month or so. He's impressive. Along with Trentin and Ulissi, Italy has got three big guys plus Gianni Moscon."

"Plus Colbrelli," Van Avermaet added. "They've also got quality too. The pressure is not only on us. Which is a good thing."

Like everyone, the Belgians named Peter Sagan as the big favourite but were quick to point out his weaknesses.

"Peter is always a top favourite. He's been a little sick but I think he'll be at a top level. He's always there," Van Avermaet said.

"His weakness is his team. But he's so strong he's almost a team on his own. He has to gamble more than us because we have a team of guys. He has to focus on a few riders and make good decisions."

Gilbert warned about Edvald Boasson Hagen and his desire to win at home in Norway.

"I raced against Edvald Boasson Hagen in the Tour of Britain. He could sprint and go away from the bunch. He was like the best Edvald we've ever known. He'll be motivated and has the support of the home crowd. His advantage is that he's got Kristoff who can sit behind in the pack and wait for the sprint and finish the job. He's even fast himself."

"I saw they were sixth and seventh last year and that they fell out about that. When that happens, you try to talk about things in private but sometimes it spills out into the public, when the pressure and emotions come out."

And how do Van Avermaet and Gilbert avoid a poor combined performance from Belgium and avoid falling out post-race?

Gilbert's solution is simple.

"As the coach said, it's not a problem, we're going to do first and second," he said with a laugh, without revealing who will win and who will finish second.

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