Van Avermaet: Boonen is as strong as I've seen him in years

BMC rider says the Belgian opening weekend is the first stern test of his form

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) says that his compatriot and Classics rival Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) is in as good a shape as he has been for years during the spring. Boonen is set to retire at the end of this season’s cobbled campaign in April, and Van Avermaet believes that the three-time Tour of Flanders winner will be a tough competitor over the coming weeks.

"It’s a long time ago that I saw Tom this good in the spring," Van Avermaet said in a press conference ahead of Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.  "Last year, he was good at the Worlds, but for spring it has been a while since he was this good this early. I think he will be there. He’s really motivated for his last year, and I think he wants to make the best of it. It’s only about 40 days to go, so it’s getting a little closer."

In Belgium, the attention is very much on Boonen during this Classics campaign, but that will not bother Van Avermaet as the two begin their stint on the cobbles over the weekend at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. After years of being the nearly-man, it was this weekend last year that things really started coming together for the Belgian. He had won some big races before, but last year was like no.

Van Avermaet has always been a rider at peace with himself, never brash or full of bravado, and it is the same this weekend. The 31-year-old is relaxed as he goes into the race to defend his title with the number one on his back.

"I like to have the number one," he said. "I’m proud to have won the race before. It gives me extra motivation because you know that you won the race against all the other contenders. For me, it doesn’t give me any extra pressure.

"I think it was one of my nicest victories. Also, it started with this and it was the start of a really nice year.

"We have a history here, and we should take care of it. It’s the first time on these roads and nice cobbles, I don’t need any extra motivation."

As good as last year was for Van Avermaet, there were some pitfalls such as the Classics-ending crash at the Tour of Flanders while he was in his best shape in years. A mountain bike training crash over the winter caused him some problems, too, when he fractured his ankle and had to undergo surgery. Having struggled with training at first, Van Avermaet says he is feeling no ill effects of the crash that happened last November.

"The first weeks when I was recovering and I had to do the cobbles it was really painful, but not now," he explained. "I have no pain at all. At the beginning, in Valencia, I still had a little bit of pain when I was sprinting, but now I did the recon on Wednesday, and I feel no pain at all."

The incident meant a delay to his training, but he thinks he’s not far off where he was at this time last year following some solid performances at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and the Tour of Oman.

"I did lose a few weeks of training. I started training late but the race in Oman gave me a lot of confidence. I think that I was almost on the same level as last year and I won the race then. The biggest test to see where I really am will be tomorrow," he said. "I think I have good shape. It’s not my top shape, but I think that it’s good enough to be there in the final and maybe win the race."

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