This weekend, Greg Van Avermaet vows, will be different. The BMC rider has been consistent if unspectacular on the cobbles thus far in 2018, but he maintains that the greater distance of the Tour of Flanders can tilt the balance in his favour after falling short to this point.
“Flanders is the race that suits me best, it’s the one with 260k, which makes it different to Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem,” Van Avermaet said at his pre-Ronde press conference in Sint-Martens-Latem on Friday morning.
“Harelbeke is really hard but only 200k, Gent-Wevelgem is 250k but less hard. Flanders is a really specific race, which makes it easier for me in the last 40k, because in the final there are not too many contenders anymore who can go for the victory.”
Van Avermaet’s credo echoes that of the American football coach Marv Levy, who would repeatedly tell his players, “When it’s too tough for them, then it’s just right for them.” That mantra carried Levy’s Buffalo Bills to four successive Super Bowls in the early 1990s, but they fell short of the biggest win of all on each occasion.
Chance has not yet smiled on Van Avermaet at the Ronde, either, with crashes ruining his challenge in each of the past two seasons. He underlined his aptitude for the race with eigth place as a second-year professional in 2008, and finished on the podium three times, placing second in 2014 and 2017, and third in 2015. Now lining up for 12th participation, there will be few more experienced riders in the peloton in Antwerp on Sunday morning.
“It’s always the main goal of the year. I’ve been here several times, hopefully this weekend it all falls into place. Even with fewer results [beforehand] than this year, I have managed to get on the podium in Flanders. I’m really confident about this race,” said Van Avermaet, who acknowledged that his window of opportunity to win the great race is slowly yawning shut. “After this year, I have maybe another two chances. Then you’d have to ask me again in 2020. I’ll be 35 then, but I don’t know how you feel when you’re getting old.”
Van Avermaet warned at the beginning of the season that repeating his remarkable sequence of 2017 results would be a tall order. If anything, it has proved even more difficult than anticipated, though he has borne the scrutiny of his performances with good grace, remaining as softly-spoken and sanguine in defeat as he was in victory.
“I’ve learned that it’s been harder than last year to win, for sure, but I was also expecting that,” Van Avermaet said. “I told everybody not to expect me to do the same results as last year. It was just impossible to do, because last year, I had good shape but everything went well too.
“Gent-Wevelgem was the best example. It’s the hardest race to win for me but I did it. I knew it would be hard to do the same. Condition-wise I was always at a good level, always in the front group and always there when the decisive move went.”
At both E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen, Van Avermaet offered sustained glimpses of his strength, but his Flemish campaign has been marked by subdued showings from his supporting cast at BMC, who have not adequately compensated for the loss of Daniel Oss to Bora-Hansgrohe during the off-season.
With defending champion Philippe Gilbert, Niki Terpstra, Yves Lampaert and Zdenek Stybar in their ranks, meanwhile, Quick-Step Floors are not lacking in strength in numbers. Although the raw power of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) makes him the bookmakers’ favourite, it is difficult to imagine a race where Gilbert and the men in blue do not dictate the terms and conditions.
“On Wednesday [at Dwars – ed.] we did a really good race but we needed an extra guy in the final with me,” said Van Avermaet. “But you cannot deny that Quick-Step has four or five riders on a super high level. For sure, they are the favourites for Sunday, which is normal if you win almost the whole classics until now.”
This time a year ago, Van Avermaet had already assembled a hefty insurance policy for his Spring in the shape of victories at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem in the weeks leading up to the Tour of Flanders. A third place at E3 Harelbeke is all he has to show for his efforts this time around, but the Belgian is well aware that the success or failure of this campaign was always going to be measured by what he achieved on the first two Sundays in April.
“I don’t have a big win in my pocket coming in, but at this point in my career I don’t think that’s important,” Van Avermaet said. “I don’t think I need that anymore, because on my level, you have to be confident in yourself.”