At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, where he suffered in cold conditions, Van Avermaet was surprisingly defeated by Ian Stannard in a two-up sprint, while at the Tour of Flanders last weekend, Fabian Cancellara out-lasted him in the finishing straight in Oudenaarde after he had been on the offensive for the final 40 kilometres.
It would be understandable if those setbacks dented Van Avermaet’s faith in his abilities as a fast finisher. A model of consistency at the business end of major races in recent seasons, the 28-year-old has nonetheless won less than his efforts have merited, perhaps, with the 2011 Paris-Tours his sole classic win.
“I’m still confident in my sprint. I think I have a good sprint in the end of a hard race. I think this is one of my strongest points and always has been,” Van Avermaet told reporters in Kortrijk on Thursday. “Getting beaten by Fabian after a hard race like Sunday was a disappointment but also not a surprise. He’s pretty strong in the sprint.”
Part of Van Avermaet’s winter training regimen included stints on the Kuipke velodrome in Ghent, and he is hopeful that some of the fundamentals of track sprinting will transfer over from those steep boards to the shallower concrete of the Roubaix velodrome, even if he acknowledged that the finale of the French classic is unique.
“It’s a strange sprint in Roubaix but I trained a little bit in winter on the track in Ghent,” he said. “Although it’s a different feeling with 5 bar in the wheel on Sunday rather than 9 bar. We’ll see on Sunday how it’s happening, but I have confidence also in a sprint on the track. A sprint on the track is always a little bit different: you can go a bit higher on the banking to get some extra speed.”
Unsurprisingly, Van Avermaet lists Cancellara as the outstanding favourite for Paris-Roubaix – “he would always the biggest favourite for Roubaix even if he hadn’t won Flanders” – and he expects the same roll call of contenders who were present in the finale of De Ronde. “You can’t make such a big difference in the condition in one week, so it’s just the same names who’ll be there in the final,” he said.
Although Van Avermaet maintains that Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders are two utterly different races, he is acknowledged that from a tactical standpoint, BMC would do well to replicate their approach from last Sunday, when they sent first Taylor Phinney and then Manuel Quinziato up the road.
“I like the way we raced on Sunday and I think it’s the way we have to race this week,” Van Avermaet said. “It takes pressure off of me and the guys who are in the break are also in a good position either to work for me or go by themselves. I think this is the kind of racing we have to do because we have a really strong team with really good names on paper. If you put Quinziato or Phinney out there, then you can play on them because they are strong guys and we also believe in them if they go in a break.”
Even so, writing a playbook for Paris-Roubaix is more difficult than in Flanders. It is tempting to equate the Carrefour de l’Arbre with Oude Kwaremont as the true beginning of the finale, for instance, but there are more variables at play over the pavé of northern France.
“It’s going to be a crazy race, and first of all it’s about surviving and getting in the final,” Van Avermaet said. “If you’re there and you don’t have crashes or you don’t have flat tyres, then I think it’s a race where the strongest guys are in the front. There aren’t much tactics going on. It’s about having the legs and being on the front.”
Van Avermaet finished in fourth place in Roubaix twelve months ago, a performance that was enough to persuade him to dispense with his ambitions for the Ardennes classics in 2014 and focus his spring entirely on the cobbles. Yet even those he is now facing into his seventh trek through l’enfer, he admitted that he is still far less familiar with the pavé in France than that of his native Flanders.
It will take a final reconnaissance of the cobbled sectors on Friday before Van Avermaet begins to piece together his plan of attack for the weekend. “I know the parcours of Flanders really well, every corner, every stone, but I don’t know Roubaix like that yet,” he said.
“That’s why I want to see it tomorrow again and then maybe I can decide where I want to go. Maybe I’ll even just wait until Sunday and see how it goes. It’s hard to say now and it’s good to see everything again first, I think.”