Lest there were any doubts, this is Tom Boonen country. On Friday afternoon, two days before the Tour of Flanders, an armada of television crews from Belgium and beyond descended upon Etixx-QuickStep’s media gathering at a laminate flooring warehouse in Wielsbeke, where the injured Boonen shot down speculation that he might line out after all.
Around the same time in a small conference at the Broel Hotel in Kortrijk, a rather more low-key ensemble listened to Greg Van Avermaet, a local rider who could very well triumph on Sunday, discuss his Ronde prospects in a voice so quiet that it scarcely reached the reporters sitting in the front row.
Not that the BMC rider has avoided the spotlight entirely this season. On the morning of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, he found his picture splashed across the front page of the newspaper of the same name, as it emerged that he had been treated by Dr. Chris Mertens, a medic under investigation for allegedly providing ozone therapy to cyclists.
Van Avermaet has been summoned to appear before a Belgian Cycling Federation committee to discuss the matter, but the hearing has been postponed until April 16, allowing him to focus, for now at least, on the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“It’s not the best situation for the classics,” Van Avermaet said on Friday. “It came out just before Het Nieuwsblad, right at the start of my most important period but I think I’ve handled it as my results show. It’s not the best but you can’t change it, you have to go through it, and I’m pretty confident it will all be ok at the end of it.”
Indeed, Van Avermaet showed few signs of distraction when he landed a stage victory in Arezzo during Tirreno-Adriatico, on the very day that his hearing had originally been scheduled. He then gave a further illustration of his form by leading Milan-San Remo over the Poggio a week later, though – with the bookmakers at least – his odds as a potential Tour of Flanders winner have lengthened slightly since his crash at E3 Harelbeke last Friday.
“Everybody told me it looked spectacular on television and it felt spectacular, but I was lucky,” he said of the incident, where he injured his back and hip but reported no fractures.
Even so, Van Avermaet’s back was in such pain ahead of Gent-Wevelgem that he had to walk sideways down the steps from the signing on podium in Deinze, but despite the extreme conditions on Sunday, the race does not appear to have hampered his recovery.
“I still feel a bit of pain in my back but I don’t think it’s going to bother me. I couldn’t recover in time for Gent-Wevelgem so I didn’t take any risks there. I’ve had a good week of training and I will be 100 percent on Sunday,” he said. “My hip is hurting a little bit, but more off the bike than on it.”
Van Avermaet has been among the most consistent classics riders since he began to devote himself specifically to the cobbles in 2012, though victory in the 2011 Paris-Tours aside, he has carved out a reputation for himself as the nearly-man of Flemish cycling.
Twelve months ago, he took second place at the Tour of Flanders, after inventively looking to pre-empt Fabian Cancellara’s move on the final time over the Oude Kwaremont by slipping away after the Taaienberg. With Cancellara and Boonen both missing through injury, however, the Tour of Flanders promises to be a very different and more open race in 2015, and it remains to be seen quite how Van Avermaet and BMC will cut their cloth this time around.
“It depends on how the race goes,” Van Avermaet said of his approach. “Last year I tried to open up the race and I showed that I can go from far out, but then I showed at Tirreno that I’m a good sprinter too, I beat Sagan and Kristoff there, so I think I’ll have to feel the race and see how it’s going.”
The spread of viable contenders is a wider one than it was a year ago, though Van Avermaet anticipates a host of familiar names battling it out on the final combination of the Kwaremont and Paterberg. He acknowledged that E3 Harelbeke winner Geraint Thomas (Sky) has performed most impressively in the build-up to the Ronde but identified Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) as the danger man.
“I think Sagan will be close. Maybe nobody is counting on him but I think he will be good on Sunday,” Van Avermaet warned. He was slightly more circumspect on the prospects of his former BMC teammate Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), who dominated the Three Days of De Panne during the week.
“For sure he’s one of the strongest guys, but he raced hard at De Panne so maybe it will be hard to be 100 percent for Sunday,” Van Avermaet said. “But if he’s good, then he’s a hard guy to beat, one of the fastest if there’s a bunch sprint.”
Even without Boonen and Cancellara, and despite the seemingly longer list of contenders, Van Avermaet is of the opinion that the Tour of Flanders will run true to the template established since the switch to the Oudenaarde final three years ago: the last lap of the Kwaremont and Paterberg will be decisive.
“Everybody knows that the last time up the Kwaremont and Paterberg will be key. It’s about having the legs there,” he said. “If you have the legs, then you have to go there and drop the faster guys.”
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