Greg Van Avermaet and his BMC Racing Team teammates signaled their intentions for stage one of the Tour of Qatar by showing up at the start in Al Katara Cultural Village in skinsuits, and the team duly placed five riders in the lead group after the bunch shattered into several echelons on the exposed 145km leg across the peninsula.
“It’s getting more usual to have skinsuits but for sure Qatar is a fast race with a lot of wind and it’s also a good chance to test material and new clothing,” Van Avermaet told Cyclingnews before the start. “It’s a good test for everything.”
Above all, the Tour of Qatar is the test site of choice for those with designs on success at the cobbled classics and, particularly, Van Avermaet’s beloved Tour of Flanders. During a 2012 campaign of consistent form and frustrating near-misses, one of Van Avermaet’s stand-out results was a fourth-place finish at De Ronde, which finished in Oudenaarde for the first time.
A child of the 1980s, Van Avermaet was weaned on the familiar cadences of the old finale over the Muur and Bosberg to Meerbeke, and he found that the long, exposed run-in to Oudenaarde jarred somewhat with the rhythm of the three laps over the Paterberg.
“I don’t like the parcours that much, I preferred the older version with the Muur and the Bosberg, because it suited me better and I knew it better as well,” Van Avermaet said. “Now it’s a bit different, as those three laps make it seem more like a circuit race. It’s always the strongest guys who win but last year a big group grew behind the guys in front in the final. I don’t like that big, open road to Oudenaarde for the finish. Still, it’s always the riders who make the race, and the weather conditions affect it too. I mean, if it rains on the Paterberg, then it’s going to be crazy. We’ll see.”
While Van Avermaet will ride “almost every classic, just not Roubaix and Flèche Wallonne,” he will place greater emphasis on the first two monuments of the season, Milano-Sanremo and Flanders, while world champion Philippe Gilbert takes centre-stage in the Ardennes.
That said, Gilbert and Thor Hushovd will be on hand at Milano-Sanremo and De Ronde as part of BMC’s expensively-assembled classics line-up, and Van Avermaet is perhaps mindful of his place in the hierarchy. Yet, when the two marquee signings misfired last spring, it was Van Avermaet and Alessandro Ballan who salvaged something from the team’s cobbled campaign.
“Phil had won everything the year before and Thor is a good classics rider too, so it was normal that I had a lower profile with them in the team,” Van Avermaet said. “But I just prepared my year like every year, to be there for them, and in the end, I had to ride for myself.
“In one way, that was good because I could prove myself and show that I had the level to be at those races. I had some problems with my heel and I hurt my ribs in a crash at Sanremo, but I had good form, so it was still a good classics campaign.”
Ultimately, however, Van Avermaet’s season would prove to be as frustrating as it was consistent. He had a steady string of placings throughout the campaign, from Het Nieuwsblad all the way to the Grand Prix de Québec, but the big win, like Paris-Tours in 2011, never materialised.
“It was a bit frustrating because I was often in a position to win,” he said. “To make it a successful year, you need some wins. So it was a good year but not a really good one.”