When Philippe Gilbert signed for BMC at the beginning of 2012, it seemed to signal a diminishing of Greg Van Avermaet’s status within the team. Uneasy stable mates during their time at Lotto, Van Avermaet had expressly left Gilbert’s court in order to follow his own ambitions, and thrived in 2011, winning Paris-Tours.
Gilbert’s arrival, then, seemed destined to block Van Avermaet’s path once again, but the past two seasons have not followed the set script. While Gilbert has struggled to recapture the form of his annus mirabilis of 2011, Van Avermaet has quietly and consistently outshone most of his fellow galacticos in BMC’s classics unit.
In the BMC cabinet reshuffle that followed Allan Peiper’s appointment as team manager this winter, it was decided that Gilbert would give the cobbles a wide berth in 2014 and focus exclusively on the Ardennes classics, while Van Avermaet has been handed the brief of leading the team at the Tour of Flanders. Speaking to the press in Kortrijk on the eve of Omloop Het Nieuwslad, Van Avermaet admitted that it felt strange not to have Gilbert as part of the equation on the cobbles this year.
“It feels a bit different,” Van Avermaet said. “It’s a little bit strange for me that he’s not here but he’s taking another way to be good for his goals, and we have other riders who can win these races also.”
While Van Avermaet’s responsibilities have changed somewhat, the terrain he faces remains very familiar, at least for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The Muur van Geraardsbergen may have been added to the parcours, but the inalienable truths of the opening race of the Belgian season remain untouched – the selection is made from the back and the strongmen are invariably left in front for the finale.
“When you come to Ronse, there the race starts,” Van Avermaet said quietly. “Then the Taaienberg is a crucial part in the race, you have to be in front there. After that, it’s always hills and cobbles. If you don’t crash and if you have the form, then you will be up there.”
The sky over Flanders was low and heavy on Friday afternoon, and further rainfall is expected during Het Nieuwsblad, but Van Avermaet was unmoved by the prospect. “It’s typical Belgium, I’m used to training in it,” he said.
The road to victory in Ghent goes through another enduring Flemish fixture, Tom Boonen, the pre-race favourite, but Van Avermaet said that he had also been impressed by the form of Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) at the recent Tours of Qatar and Oman. “Roelandts was really good there. He’s made a goal of this race and he’s always good here,” Van Avermaet said.
There are certainly parallels between Van Avermaet and Roelandts’ situations as they enter this Opening Weekend. They are both 28 years old and they both have important spring results on their respective palmarès, but each man is still searching for his first major win on the cobbles. Het Nieuwsblad wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
“I think I’m ready for it,” Van Avermaet said. “For me it’s the first test, the first important race of the year. I really worked hard this winter to be good on the cobbles. I’ve always been close on the cobbles and I hope to win one of them.”
Even without Gilbert and the suspended Alessandro Ballan, however, BMC’s classics team remains an ensemble effort, and Van Avermaet will have Taylor Phinney and Thor Hushovd as foils on Saturday. While Phinney has been assigned the role of “wildcard,” Hushovd will be poised in the event of a group finish in Sint-Pietersplein, looking to repeat his victory of 2009.
“I’ve been working hard all winter,” Hushovd said. “With Dubai and the Tour of the Mediterranean in my legs, things have started to go well and now I’m looking forward to the real races.”
Hushovd has endured two illness-plagued spring campaigns since joining BMC in 2012, but he showed signs of recovery in the second half of last season. His final tune-up for Het Nieuwsblad came at the Tour du Haut-Var last weekend, where he animated the second stage with a rare solo breakaway.
“There was no plan: I knew it was a hard day and I just wanted to have a good day of work,” Hushovd explained. “And sometimes it helps me to go deep like that before a hard race. I’m sure I’m strong enough to win one of these [classic] races, either on Saturday or in the upcoming weeks.”
Directeur sportif Max Sciandri also revealed that there will be an additional fast finisher in the BMC line-up on Saturday. Neo-professional Rik Zabel, who was previously pencilled in only for Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne this weekend, will take the place of Manuel Quinziato at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.