In his 13th Tour of Flanders participation, Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) was unable to convert his experience into a first Ronde victory. This time around, he wasn't as much of a top favourite as in other years but still, the 33-year-old was racing for the win.
"It'll have to happened the 14th time. That's a nice number, too,” Van Avermaet said, laughingly. The olympic champion's former teammate Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First) won the Ronde, with a powerful attack on the Oude Kwaremont where Van Avermaet had to bow his head and accept defeat.
"I think the best rider won today. That makes it somewhat easier to deal with the disappointment," Van Avermaet said.
Last year, Van Avermaet and Bettiol were teammates at the now folded BMC team. Van Avermaet explained that the team hoped that Bettiol would join them when a new sponsor appeared. But that wasn't the case. "He signed very early. I think he signed already in June for EF. That was a blow for us. We took him in the team because we knew he was a big talent. He never rode at his level in the Flemish races. He had bad luck too because of a few crashes, but he never got back to his level, certainly not the level that he's at right now," Van Avermaet said.
"Bettiol is the biggest surprise of the day. Nobody expected him to win. Last year, I saw he had some potential but he was never at a super level in BMC. He rode all these races with me. His results weren't fantastic. I think he looks more sharp now and he probably trained better than last year. It's a talent and quite young. To me, it’s a surprise but I knew he had the capabilities, maybe not to win the Ronde but certainly to ride top-10. I think he’s a talent who realized that he’s got to do a bit more for it than just train for a few hours."
Bettiol improved a lot since last year and on the Oude Kwaremont he displayed that talent. On the second part of the 2,200 metres long cobbled climb, he blasted away from what remained of the peloton. Van Avermaet was leading the group but he didn't have an answer ready to Bettiol's acceleration.
"Bettiol went on the Oude Kwaremont and nobody was capable of going with him. He surprised me there. He came from behind and I didn't see him coming. I expected a move like that from Jungels or Van Aert. I knew that I was capable of keeping up with them all day long. That wasn't the case with Bettiol. I kept going at my pace and nobody passed me, which meant that they didn't have much left in the tank either. I wasn't strong enough to keep up with him but I was among the best in the group behind him. I was always among the four-five best riders on the climbs. There were a lot of riders on the same level and it was really hard to make the difference with the others. I tried everything. I rode up the Oude Kwaremont at a strong pace. Before that, there was a gap in the peloton and I hoped to ride away," Van Avermaet said.
On the final climb of the day, the short and steep cobbled Paterberg, Van Avermaet tried one last time to shake off the sprinters in the group. "Intentionally, I started going flat out straight from the foot of the climb, hoping that we would get away with a few riders. In the E3, I was in a similar situation. That's why I attacked there at the Tiegemberg, in order to try and win the race," Van Avermaet said.
In the E3 BinckBank Classic, he managed to reduce the front group to five riders who sprinted for the victory in Harelbeke. The scenario didn't work out that well in the Ronde. At first, things seemed OK as Van Avermaet was riding away from the rest of the group with Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) and Oliver Naesen (AG2R).
"Only Mathieu passed me there near the top," he said. "There was a bit of a gap there but sadly enough, we didn't get away with a small group. There were still many sprinters in that group, like Matthews and Kristoff. It was difficult to go flat out and ride to the finish with those guys on my wheel. It felt like it wasn't up to me to try and close the gap for those riders. I had been riding tempo on the climbs with guys that were always following. It wasn't my job to bring them to the finish line and let them win Flanders. I tried to win the race but when that wasn't possible I tried to get a good result. If the situation would've been different there, then a victory still might've been possible. At that point, you know that you're riding for second place and that's a pity."
In hindsight, there were few regrets for Van Avermaet. He did think back about the big lead group that was created after climbing the Muur in Geraardsbergen, at 100km from the finish. "Maybe I would save a little bit more energy if you knew how it would end up, but there wasn’t much I would do different," Van Avermaet said.
"It was a pity that there was nobody else from the team there. It was the only moment in the race that the team wasn't there. On every other moment in the race they helped me out, for example when approaching the foot of the Muur. It broke up pretty fast after the Muur and I thought it was a good thing for me because I was in the first group. I hoped to set the race on fire at that point. That might've helped me but everything came back together. Suddenly I realized that I had been using a lot of energy when trying to close the gaps after the Muur. I had to recover from that. The second time up the Kwaremont was really hard, but that's the case for everybody."
Next up for Van Avermaet is next week's Paris-Roubaix. Van Avermaet won the race in 2017. It's a race where he always performs well. "Sadly enough, I have to switch focus to Paris-Roubaix because I would've loved to win here. It's a race that's closer to my heart. I keep saying that the Ronde suits me better but it's a pity that it's never working out," he said
"The best riders in Flanders are often the best riders in Roubaix too so I certainly have my chance there. I’m not saying no to a second victory in Paris-Roubaix though. Paris-Roubaix is a nice race, too, though, and hopefully I'll be more lucky there."