The organisers’ decision to cancel Sunday’s mountain stage that included a summit finish dramatically altered the dynamics of Tirreno-Adriatico, giving the rouleurs a decided advantage over the usual general classification contenders for the hilly Italian WorldTour race. BMC’s win in the opening team time trial perfectly positioned the Belgian to make a run at the overall win.
“I was never expecting this win,” Van Avermaet said at the post-race press conference. “It’s special because I won’t win it again. It was the one chance in my life. So I’m happy I got it and that I took it. I’m proud to be the first Belgian winner after Roger De Vlamenick. It’s a hard race. Perhaps my Tour de France stage win was more important, but this is special too.”
Van Avermaet took the overall lead following Monday’s sixth stage when he infiltrated a move started by Sagan and then outsprinted the world champion in the finale. It was the second time this year that Van Avermaet bested Sagan after he also beat him in the sprint to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last month.
Sagan was critical of Van Avermaet’s riding the previous day after the Belgian sat on in the breakaway while Sagan’s team powered the move for much of its time off the front, barely holding off the field before Van Avermaet surged ahead at the line for the stage win and overall lead. But on Tuesday Van Avermart dismissed any criticism of his tactics.
“That’s racing,” he said. “We make decisions. Sometimes I ride, sometimes I don’t. I decided not to work because we had Tejay [van Garderen] and [Damiano] Caruso behind. The break was not the best situation for us; they had to gain time on me, not me on them. I think I pull the most time when I’m in a break. Yesterday I didn’t, but that’s racing.”
Van Avermaet has been known for his aggressive style of racing - sometimes to a fault - and he acknowledged in Tuesday’s post-race press conference that Monday’s win was a change from his usual tactics, but it didn’t make a change in how he will ride in the future.
“Maybe I changed a bit, but I think I’m the guy who will try to attack,” he said. “Yesterday I was lucky to have a few GC guys up there, and so I could not work and that allowed me to save myself.
“I don’t think I’ve changed,” he said. “Small things have happened at the right moment. Yesterday I took time to wait in the sprint and that’s part of winning and losing… It’s about a tiny decision and a few seconds. It’s happened to me and put me in a good position that’s made the difference.”
Asked if he has become Sagan’s nightmare rider now that he’s beaten him three times so far this year, Van Avermaet said that in one way he hopes so.
“It means I’m winning a lot,” he said. “I’ve beaten him a few times and it’s often been close. But cycling is about winning, and I’m really happy to win Tirreno-Adriatico. I never expected it. It was close at just one second. I knew it would be a hard circuit for me, but I’m happy to have won.”
Van Avermaet’s overall win at Tirreno-Adriatico depended on defending his eight-second lead over today’s 10.1km time trial. He just barely held off Sagan, who has won time trials of this length before, by just one second. Van Avermaet said it was a hard effort that obviously paid off.
“I knew it would be hard at the end,” he said. “We had the same split, but then I was five seconds down. I’d tried to match his time, but in the end I was giving it everything and focusing on my ride. I think I did a good TT, maybe not best but not worst. I like more corners, but it is what it is and I’m just happy that I won.”
Shortly after Van Avermaet secured the Tirreno-Adriatico win, BMC released the roster for the upcoming Milan-San Remo monument, with Philippe Gilbert absent because he’s suffering from an upper respiratory infection picked up at Paris-Nice.
The BMC roster for Milan-San Remo will look much like the team’s Tirreno-Adriatico start list: Van Avermaet is joined by Damiano Caruso, Alessandro De Marchi, Jempy Drucker, Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato, who raced with him in Italy. Marcus Burghard and Danilo Wyss come in for Milan-San Remo, while Tejay van Garderen and Taylor Phinney will sit it out.
Van Avermaet, who featured in the finale of last year’s race, will be the clear leader of the team.
“I’ve ridden Milan-San Remo a few times and been alone on the Poggio and second on the descent,” he said. “I had a few good rides but it’s hard to win Milan-San Remo. It’s a lottery but a strong guy always wins. I’m confident after this week and I’m ready for Milan-San Remo.”
BMC’s two-pronged approach with Van Avermaet and Gilbert put the team in the hunt for the win last year, but how will Gilbert’s absence this year affect the team’s chances for the win?
“Milan-San Remo is a strange race, so better to have a few leaders because so much can happen,” Van Avermaet said. “I tried to attack on the Poggio and he crashed on the descent. I hope he can be fast back on the bike and be there for rest of classics.”
In the final analysis, Van Avermaet said, the race is not only bout the best legs but about making the right decisions at the right moments.
“It can just be one and that decides between winning and losing,” he said. “I’ll go forward and think about the race in the next few days. I’ve got a good sprint, too, after a hard race. We’ll see how it goes.”