Success may have come quite late to Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), but he’s determined to cram as much as possible into the remaining years of his career, setting his sights on the Tour of Flanders in 2018, along with Strade Bianche and the Amstel Gold Race.
Van Avermaet was for so long the nearly-man of Belgian cycling, racking up an slew of podiums and top-five placings while the big wins escaped his grasp. How distant that incarnation now seems. The turning point has been attributed to his first Tour de France stage win in 2015. The following season he won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the GP de Montreal, and the Olympic Games road race, along with another Tour stage and a stint in the yellow jersey.
His 2017 campaign, however, was something else, with victories at Omloop, E3 Harelbeke, and Gent-Wevelgem leading to a first Monument scalp – after 11 top-10s and seven top-fives – at Paris-Roubaix. He was second at Tour of Flanders and Strade Bianche to boot.
"This year everything came together," Van Avermaet told Cyclingnews in Japan last week, 10 days after being crowned the 2017 WorldTour winner. "Big wins in Belgium, then Paris-Roubaix on top of it – for me it was a really important step in my career. I'm finally where I wanted to be.
"Last year and the year before were really good but I never really won a big thing in the spring, and I'm a classics guy so that's the most important thing. I'm very happy that I achieved things because for a long time I was the guy who never won but was always there, and finally I made the step to go to the winning part."
Van Avermaet can't quite put his finger on the reason for his remarkable transformation from nearly-man to world-beater, nor can he bring himself to regret that things didn't click into place sooner.
"It's a collection of small things, I think," he said. "Every year you learn in the Classics. It's also about confidence, the team now rides behind me as the only leader, and also for sure I got a little bit stronger, so everything came together. OK, I was lucky as well. Luck is a big part between winning and coming second or third. When you have all this in the pocket already you are more relaxed and then you make better decisions and it becomes easier by itself.
"As a neo-pro, I was eighth in Flanders, so I thought I was going to win the Classics when I was 25 or 26. But it took longer, and in some way it's maybe also nice… not nice, but I know how hard it is to win these races. Now I'm 32, I'm more ready for it than I probably was when I was 25, so I'm pretty relaxed.
"I'm really happy with how my career has gone so far. For sure it's not the easiest way, but I think it's a good way."
Cyclingnews spoke with Van Avermaet at the Saitama Criterium, as attention turned from the events of the season just gone and onto the prospects of the one ahead. The Belgian, quite understandably, is reluctant to make major changes to the path that led him to this spring – even if it means replicating a light winter training regime that was only forced upon him by injury.
Van Avermaet broke his ankle in November of last year, and only started training properly in early December. Even before then, he had opted for a lengthy six weeks off the bike following his final race. Ending this season almost a month earlier, he has once again gone for six weeks off – he's not counting the Shanghai and Saitama criteriums – and is due to start training properly next week, though with the lessons of last winter in mind.
"I'm a kind of guy who usually trains pretty hard, I do a lot. But last year I recognised that it was better to just go easier," Van Avermaet told Cyclingnews.
"I only went on the bike on December 6, so it was pretty short. At first I was a bit worried, and I also felt in the first races that I wasn't really there, but in the end it helped me to be more fresh in the Classics where it really mattered."
Van Avermaet's race programme will be pretty much unchanged from this year, starting out stage race outings in Valencia and Oman, followed by a taste of the classics at Omloop, Kuurne, and Strade Bianche, an interruption in the form of Tirreno-Adriatico, and then the big ones: Milan-San Remo, E3, Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders, Roubaix, and Amstel.
"My goals are pretty straightforward: It's winning Flanders," said Van Avermaet. "This year it didn't work out again. It's the race that means the most to me and the race that suits me the best.
"I hope I can win the races I was second last year – Flanders and Strade Bianche. The rest of the races are also important but it would be nice in my career to win everything in the kind of big races through to Roubaix. So that would be cool to win Flanders, and Amstel I'd like also."
Van Avermaet may have finally arrived but, far from resting on his laurels, he's eager to make up for lost time.
"I'm really happy I've finally found the level where I wanted to be, and this opens a lot of doors. For sure I'm still motivated to do better. It's not like I won Roubaix three or four times already, so I still have a lot of things to do."