The more things change, the more they stay the same. Becoming Olympic champion in Rio last year elevated Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) to a new level of fame in his home country, but one aspect of his life remains unaltered: The Tour of Flanders is still the race he covets above all others. There are many residual perks to winning Olympic gold, but Van Avermaet seems keen to leave most of them aside for the time being lest they distract from preparations for the Ronde.
"Belgium is a cycling country so there's a lot of requests that come through, cookery programmes on TV and all this stuff, crazy stuff," Van Avermaet said recently of his increased popularity since his return from Brazil. Needless to say, there has been no appearance on the Great Belgian Bake Off. "No, this kind of thing I don't do. I'd like to do it after my career but now I have to be focused a little bit on my career. These are my best years and I don't want to waste my time doing this kind of stuff."
Over the past 18 months, Van Avermaet has slipped his tag as the nearly-man of Belgian cycling, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad twice, Tirreno-Adriatico, two Tour de France stages and, of course, Olympic gold in Rio. The upturn in Van Avermaet's fortunes can be traced, it seems, to one precise date – July 17, 2015, when he out-sprinted and out-smarted Peter Sagan to land victory in Rodez at the Tour. The change, he says, was mental rather than physical.
"After this win, it came a little bit easier. Maybe I started to make better decisions and that just made the difference between winning and losing," he said. "The difference in a sprint between second and first is not much so I knew I could win Classics. I knew I could do this. I was strong enough to do this. But everything has to fall in the right way to go good. And that's what changed after that win, I think."
Van Avermaet is, however, keenly aware – and constantly reminded – that his palmarès still lacks a Monument classic. The 2016 Tour of Flanders has passed into posterity as a Sagan procession, but who knows how far Van Avermaet might have pushed him had his race not been ended by a crash shortly before the cobbles at Haaghoek with a little over 100 kilometres remaining. After second place in 2014 and third in 2015, it was beginning to feel like his year. Olympic gold or not, the sense of regret is palpable.
"It was really disappointing because I had the feeling I was at the point where I could win Flanders," Van Avermaet said. "And even into the race, I had the feeling you have as a cyclist where you really feel you can win this. I'd had a really good approach. I won Het Nieuwsblad, I won Tirreno, I had all these good results. I came in with a lot of confidence to the races where you have to perform. And then you go down and in a second everything is gone."
In years past, Van Avermaet seemed to feel compelled to be inventive at the Spring Classics, as though resigned to the idea that others – chiefly Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen – were physically on another level to his. At the 2014 Ronde, for instance, he anticipated Cancellara's attack rather than risk going head-to-head with him on the Kwaremont. Nowadays, however, Van Avermaet says he does not feel inferior to anyone.
"I think I'm strong enough. On my parcours there's nobody stronger than me, I think. I can follow whoever I want. I'm confident about this, they cannot go away or drop me," he said. "Ok, one day you're a little bit less strong and another day you're stronger, but I don't have the feeling that I need to be scared of anybody. I just have to do my own race and hopefully it comes good by itself."
Van Avermaet was speaking to reporters on the penultimate night of the Tour of Oman and, as if to illustrate the point, a week later he would outlast Sagan in the finale of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad for the second successive year. And for all the Slovak's prodigious show of strength on the Poggio at Milan-San Remo on Saturday, Michal Kwiatkowski showed that he can be followed – and beaten. "Sagan will be there, he's such a big talent and he's enjoying what he's doing," Van Avermaet said. "I think he's one of these big guys who'll be there for many years because he's still young. He's the guy to beat, and it's hard, but it's possible."
Boonen the hero
For more than a decade, the road to victory at the Ronde has tended to run through Tom Boonen, and the Quick-Step Floors man remains very much in the picture as he faces into his final weeks as a professional rider. For all that Van Avermaet's media profile has risen since Rio, his notoriety pales in comparison to that of 'Tommeke,' whose every move and every utterance this spring is being catalogued by a retinue of dedicated correspondents. Since the turn of the year, the Flemish newspapers have been publicly counting down the days to his final act, at Paris-Roubaix on April 9.
"There's a lot of attention for him, it's crazy. Every day there's an update about how he's feeling and how he's doing," Van Avermaet said. "For me he was also a little bit a hero too. In 2005, I was still an under-23 at the Worlds that he won, sitting at the table looking like at him with wide eyes. Ok, I'm getting on the same level as him, but I still have big respect for him. I'm enjoying that I can race against him in the last days of his career."
After twenty years of setting out from Bruges, this year's Tour of Flanders will start from Boonen's home patch of Antwerp, only adding to the sense that this year's Classics campaign is one long farewell to the 36-year-old, but Van Avermaet has no qualms about upsetting the local support and spoiling the party. "For sure, everybody wanted Tom to win Roubaix last year, and they were disappointed Hayman beat him, but I think cycling is a bit different to football," Van Avermaet said. "Ok, the fans have favourites. They might have Sagan as their favourite, or Boonen, or me sometimes, but they don't really fight against each other. Hopefully I can win Flanders and Tom wins Roubaix, that would be good."
This year's Ronde will also pass through Van Avermaet's hometown of Hamme-Zogge as it makes its way towards the postage stamp of the Flemish Ardennes where the race is decided. Having lined out the Tour of Flanders every year since his professional debut in 2007 – he also raced the amateur version on two occasions – the secrets of the cobbles and hills of the Ronde have long since revealed themselves to Van Avermaet.
"I train every day on the parcours. For me I know everything, it's not that I need to go there to research the climbs and the roads or how the race is done," he said. "I know what I have to do, I can't learn any more from doing that. It's an advantage I have."