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Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) salutes as he takes the opening stage of the 2013 Tour of Utah
Belgian ready for leadership at BMC
Greg Van Avermaet's aims for his first Tour of Qatar in 2007 were typical of any young rider in his first professional race; he wanted to survive each day in the peloton and avoid bringing down any of the big names in a crash. The Belgian would do that and more, of course, marking an auspicious beginning to his career by sprinting to victory on the penultimate stage.
The Ritz Carlton in Doha, the crosswinds and the desert sunshine are all still here, but as Van Avermaet lines up for his sixth Tour of Qatar on Sunday, he views his Gulf experience with the pragmatism of a Tour of Flanders contender rather than the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a neophyte.
"It's different alright, because now I know I'll be fine and I will survive here," Van Avermaet laughed. "It's more like a preparation for the classics. It's good to come here from training camp because it's always hard racing, there's a lot of wind, and you get a lot of speed in the legs.
"Some other riders maybe prefer other races in February, and I've tried a lot of other things - Down Under, Algarve, Bessèges - but I think for me this one fits the best."
Van Avermaet's position within BMC's firmament of galacticos has shifted slightly as he begins his fourth season with the team. The softly-spoken Belgian has been BMC's most reliable performer on the cobbles in that time, but more often than not has approached those races in a rather secondary role, his light under a bushel.
With Philippe Gilbert opting to skip the Tour of Flanders, Alessandro Ballan suspended and Thor Hushovd still searching for a return to form, however, Van Avermaet assumes the mantle of BMC's leader for De Ronde from the very outset of the 2014 campaign.
"It gives me pressure, but it's good to have that pressure," he said. "I like to be leader there because I've proved already that I can be good there. It gives me motivation that one of the biggest teams in the world gave me this role. I hope to finish it off one time because I've been in the top ten in the classics a lot, but I know I've got it in me to be a winner also."
Chasing a big classic
Van Avermaet has been a beacon of consistency across an array of spring classics in recent years - he's been 4th at Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, 3rd at Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, 7th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 9th at Milan-San Remo - but he has yet to land a signature victory. His win at Paris-Tours in 2011 looked set to signal a turning point in that regard, but the big spring triumph has yet to
"I'm always chasing this big classic," he admitted. "I feel I've got it in me but some guys like Cancellara, Boonen and Sagan are a little bit stronger. But I'm still only 28, so I have a few more years to go. I'm getting a little bit stronger every year and I hope it comes. For me this is the big goal: to win one classic would be wonderful for my career."
Should it arrive, that win is likely to come on the cobbles. In a mirror of Gilbert's decision to focus exclusively on the Ardennes classics, Van Avermaet has scratched Liège-Bastogne-Liège from his programme, and will instead build his spring around the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
"Last year, I was planning not to do Roubaix, but after Flanders, I had the feeling that I was on my best form of the year and I thought it would be a bit stupid to stop and then try to build up again for Amstel and Liège," Van Avermaet said. A fine fourth place in what was his first Paris-Roubaix appearance in three years proved his instincts were correct. "It gives me a different programme now, and I'm not doing Liège anymore."
The sharpening of Van Avermaet's focus to the cobbles is a reflection too, perhaps, of BMC's change in management. Allan Peiper has been installed as manager following John Lelangue's departure after last year's Tour de France, while Valerio Piva joins as a directeur sportif. "It's a little bit stricter and we get our goals more [clearly] than the others years," Van Avermaet said. "Everybody is more focused now."
The addition of the Pompeiana to the parcours at Milan-San Remo may have drawn Van Avermaet's eye - "It's better for me because you can drop more sprinters on it, and I'm still a pretty fast guy on the end," he said - but even La Classicissima is viewed primarily through the optic of preparing for the Tour of Flanders: "I always want to be good for Milan-San Remo because if I'm good there, I'll be good for the whole classics period, I think."
Indeed, while Van Avermaet will take a day after Paris-Nice to reconnoitre the new San Remo finale, he made his first assessment of the De Ronde's new course all the way back in November. Not that his memory needed any particular refreshing. "Flanders I know really well," he said. "I know every stone."