While almost all the world's top Classics riders are in Belgium this weekend for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, there's one glaring absentee in Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). Some might breathe a sigh of relief at not having to work out how to beat the three-time world champion, but for Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) it's the opposite.
Sagan won Kuurne last year and finished on the podium at the past two editions of Omloop, but has decided to plot his route to the spring differently this year, training at altitude in Spain before resuming racing at Strade Bianche.
For Van Avermaet, who has beaten Sagan to the top step of those last two Omloop podiums, the 'opening weekend' remains an important step on his calendar, but he says his chances of a record third title are made harder – not easier – by his rival's absence.
"For me, it's not an advantage that Peter is not here. I like to race with Peter. He opens up the race and rides with me full gas," Van Avermaet said at BMC's pre-race press conference in Sint-Martens-Latem on Friday.
"It's strange to say, but sometimes it's easier to have a guy like that next to you, rather than being the favourite everyone is looking at. So it's going to be more difficult, I think."
With wins at Omloop, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, and Paris-Roubaix last spring, Van Avermaet shook off the last remaining vestiges of his 'nearly man' reputation, and indeed he'll be a marked man. The theme of that 2017 Classics campaign was early aggression and open, selective racing, and Van Avermaet's hoping his new status doesn't change that.
"I hope everyone takes on the race," he said. "The parcours is there to do something. I think some guys have to try something because they're not strong enough for a sprint, so everyone will have different strategies.
"I hope we do kind of the same as last year – open races in the classics are nicer for you guys and nicer for me. Just race and don't think so much."
Van Avermaet has won the past two editions of the Omloop, but for everyone, Saturday will be something of a voyage into the unknown given the dramatic changes to the parcours.
Having started and finished in Gent for the past decade, this year the race revives the much-loved old Tour of Flanders finale, featuring the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg in the finale. While some 35 kilometres separated the finish line from the final climb on the old course, the Muur-Bosberg combination leaves just a 12km run-in to Meerbeke after the last climb.
"It's harder, I think, and suits me better than last year. There are a few more climbs. The Muur is probably one of the hardest climbs in Flanders so there you can make the difference," said Van Avermaet, who has a more intimate knowledge than most of the closing stages.
"It's my training parcours. When I was younger and went riding in Flanders I would always do Haghoek-Leberg, and I'd always do Muur-Bosberg-home. That was my training lap. I never went over to the Kwaremont and Paterberg [the new Flanders finale –ed], so this has more of a connection for me. I'm really happy the Muur's back."
Van Avermaet remembers racing on the Muur and Bosberg in De Ronde before the course was altered in 2012.
"I never won on that parcours because I was still young, or working for other guys," he said. "My friend Lawrence Naesen sent me some pictures the other day, he was looking back at Flanders 2011, and I was there riding for George Hincapie on the front before the Muur. I was helping the team at that moment and now I'm happy I can be a leader."
Van Avermaet is indeed now a leader and also a big favourite for Omloop, as well as almost every one-day race he'll start this spring.
While main Classics period and the Monuments are still a few weeks away, he – unlike Sagan – sees the opening weekend as an indispensable part of that journey.
"In Belgium [in terms of prestige] you have the Tour of Flanders, and then I think behind that you have Het Nieuwsblad, on the same level as E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. It's important because it's the first one and also it's WorldTour now, so that helps with the stature. But for a Belgian guy, it's almost in second place after De Ronde.
"I'm happy I'm starting in this shape – my preparation has been perfect – and now it's time to let the legs talk and see how far I can go."