A change of billing for Greg Van Avermaet. So often a nearly man in the past, the BMC man’s fine start to the 2016 campaign sees him line up in an unfamiliar role at this year’s Spring Classics, as one of the outright favourites for victory on the cobbles.
The upgrade in status since landing Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February has not appeared a burden to Van Avermaet thus far. He claimed a canny overall victory at Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this month and on Wednesday came within 200 metres of landing Dwars door Vlaanderen after a powerful solo attack in the finale.
“I’m not the underdog anymore, no,” Van Avermaet told reporters in Roeselare on Thursday afternoon. “I always wanted to be in this position, I knew I could do it and it’s good to be here finally. But I’m still hungry for more. I want a big race like Flanders or Roubaix on my palmarès, and that’s what keeps me motivated.”
Van Avermaet’s new rank was not reflected by the small attendance at his pre-E3 Harelbeke press conference – the Belgian media has had to focus on reporting rather more doleful news to report this week, of course – and on the road, too, he said that he had not felt any more heavily marked than before.
“Making better results and getting wins has changed things a little bit, but other riders were targeting me before now, too, like last year at Flanders and Roubaix,” Van Avermaet said. “They know I’m always up there contesting the win, so I think I was already important before. Maybe the only thing that has changed is that with the team, we have to take more responsibility.”
Something has certainly changed for Van Avermaet, who somehow appears to have shaken off the last of the lingering inhibitions that seemed to plague him on the big stage in years past. He gave further notice of his newfound confidence with his forceful solo effort in the finale of Dwars door Vlaanderen, which was only snuffed out in the finishing straight.
“I never had this position [coming into the Classics]. Most of the time I had to confirm I was good,” he said. “But when you’ve already won a nice race in Belgium, you can be more relaxed and take a little more risks in the races.”
The obvious question, of course, was whether Van Avermaet would have felt sufficiently assured to launch a similar move against the likes of Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), who were not present in Waregem on Wednesday. The answer may well come on Friday at E3 Harelbeke, where the principal contenders for the Tour of Flanders line out for what amounts to a dress rehearsal.
“Why not? I’m strong, I’m not scared of anybody,” Van Avermaet said. “I know that I’m strong. It’s hard to say if I’d ride in the same way, you have to see the situation and make decisions. With Sagan and Cancellara there, it’s a different race, but I can attack even if they are there.”
Van Avermaet singled out Cancellara as the favourite for success at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and suggested that the Swiss would be likely to show his hand at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem this weekend. He dismissed the idea that Cancellara’s abortive attack in the finale of Milan-San Remo was in any way of sign of weakness: mindful, no doubt, that his rival has already won four races in 2016.
“You have one shot in San Remo. If you don’t hit the target it’s over,” Van Avermaet said “He did a really strong attack but it’s hard to get away on the flat. He’s not Superman, eh. We can beat him also. He’s super strong and we’ll see in the next few days. In hard races, you can really see who is the strongest.”
Van Avermaet will ride E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem this weekend “with ambitions” though he stressed that his priority is to shine at the Tour of Flanders a week later. “I never come out of this weekend with the best feelings but the important thing is to prepare for Flanders,” said Van Avermaet, who will not race the Three Days of De Panne next week as he tapers ahead of De Ronde.
Inevitably, Van Avermaet was asked about the polemic floated by Etixx-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere in the aftermath of Dwars door Vlaanderen, namely that he had been able to draft behind motorbikes after attacking in the finale. It’s not a new topic in this corner of the world by any means – see Johan Museeuw’s winning move on the Tenbosse at the 1998 Tour of Flanders, for instance, or Nico Mattan’s controversial Gent-Wevelgem win of 2005.
“The motorbikes are part of cycling, they need to take pictures and make videos,” Van Avermaet said. “I know some people think I had an advantage yesterday behind the motorbike, but the only place I felt I was covered was when I attacked. The rest of the time, I was in the wind.
“If the motorbike comes to take a picture, it’s still ten or fifteen metres in front of you and you don’t take any advantage. It’s normal if you make the first attack, then you sometimes have a little bit of an advantage behind the motorbike for a short time. But it’s not like a big advantage.”
Thoughts in Belgium this week, of course, linger far beyond the minutiae of bike racing, and Van Avermaet reflected on the decision to proceed with Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen – and Friday’s E3 Harelbeke – despite the heightened state of alert in the country following the terrorist atrocities in Brussels on Tuesday.
“It was a strange feeling yesterday, but we dealt pretty well with it. It was good that we kept in mind what was happening,” Van Avermaet said. “I was watching the news all day on Tuesday and if you watch
for the whole day you get depressed. So it’s good to sometimes go out and try to clear your mind. That’s what we did by racing and that’s what the people who came out to watch the race did too.”
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