Greg Van Avermaet believes that his former BMC Racing teammate Philippe Gilbert can win Paris-Roubaix. Gilbert has won three of cycling's five Monuments, after adding the Tour of Flanders to his tally last year, and has set his sights on completing the set.
Gilbert skipped Paris-Roubaix last season as he looked to save energy for the Ardennes Classics, but his "#StriveforFive" will see him return to the Hell of the North for the first time 2007, where he finished 52nd.
"I think that he is capable of doing it. He's already won three Monuments and he's got a good technique," said Van Avermaet, who won Roubaix for the first time last season. "He's a little bit lighter than some of the other Classics guys on the cobbles but I think that he is able to do it. If you see how his career went then he really went for Lombardia and Liège. Now, he has turned into a guy that is more of a strong rider. That's what you need on the cobbles, power."
Van Avermaet pinpoints experience as a key factor and, while Gilbert has only ridden Paris-Roubaix once before, he says that his compatriot's strength and experience in other races will pay dividends. The key thing for the 35-year-old, says Van Avermaet, is to become acquainted with the specific sectors.
"It's such a hard race it kills you slowly. Other races are punchier and are more explosive, but Roubaix is more of a steady pace," explained Van Avermaet. "I think experience is something. I couldn't have won Roubaix when I was 24. I think age is something. If you look at the past winners, most of them are over 30. You need the engine, and you need to build it up over the years.
"To succeed in Roubaix you need this and experience certainly helps. Phil has experience because he has won many races already so for him it will be a little bit less different. He just needs to know the cobbles and the sectors, that's the most important."
Building and holding form
Van Avermaet's own preparations for the Classics have been going well with a successful showing at the Tour of Oman last week, which resulted in a stage victory and a stint in the leader's jersey. It is possibly Van Avermaet's best start to a season and his first individual victory pre-Omloop Het Nieuwsblad/Het Volk since he won a stage of the Tour of Qatar in 2007. It bodes well for a strong start to his Classics campaign and after a dominant 2017, he says that he's in even better condition than last year.
"On the bike, I feel better than I did last year and it's important to keep this kind of feeling through the Classics," Van Avermaet said. "I started my preparation around the 11th or 12th of December because of my injury on my ankle and then it was a really short time. It came good at the right time and, now, I think that everything went as planned. I've had enough training, which is the most important, and I hope that this base is even better than it was last year."
Van Avermaet is not the only rider winning ahead of the Classics opener with Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb off the mark in Tour Down Under and Challenge Mallorca respectively. The BMC rider is not putting too much stock in his rival's early-season results, however.
"Everybody is preparing really well," Van Avermaet said. "Peter will always be there, he is one of the main contenders. Phil [Gilbert] is also always there and I think that there are several others. You could name 10-15 good riders in the Classics and everybody have their own specific goals.
"Some guys can sprint better so have easier results before the Classics and then some guys like Vanmarcke never really has a good result before [the Classics] but he's in good shape. We'll see. It's always nice to meet the guys in the first races in Belgium and then you can see the level. In the end, names like Sagan and Gilbert will always be there. It's going to be good."