Greg Van Avermaet will assume the role of outright leader at BMC for the Tour of Flanders in Philippe Gilbert’s absence, but the Belgian said that he would have preferred to have had the world champion at his side on Sunday.
Van Avermaet and Gilbert had endured a frosty relationship during their time together at Lotto, but since they were reunited at BMC last season, the pair’s rapport has appeared somewhat more harmonious, helped in part, perhaps, by Gilbert’s lack of form last spring.
At BMC’s pre-race press conference, Van Avermaet said that Gilbert’s absence would have a significant impact on the outcome of the race. “It changes a lot because he’s the world champion and I’m a bit disappointed that he’s not here,” Van Avermaet said. “With him, we would have another strong rider in the final and maybe more opportunities but it’s like that and you cannot change it. Taylor Phinney is not here either, so we will see.”
Speaking to Cyclingnews during the Tour of Qatar last month, Van Avermaet had expressed his reservations about the new route of the Tour of Flanders, which was rolled out last season. Van Avermaet preferred the old finale over the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg, but he conceded that at the second attempt, the new Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg circuit might be interpreted differently.
“It’s hard to say, but it’s the second time we do the parcours,” he said. “Last year, everybody was looking at each other a little bit but this time I hope the race is harder from a little earlier. In the end, I think the Kwaremont and Paterberg will be the key point and I think the strongest guys will go to the finish.”
The expectation is that those strongmen will prove to be Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack Leopard) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale), but Van Avermaet warned that there are other serious contenders for victory in Oudenaarde.
“Sagan and Cancellara are the favourites, but there are a lot of outsiders and strong collectives, like Omega Pharma-QuickStep and Sky, and we’re solid too,” Van Avermaet said, who pledged to go on the offensive. “It’s my way of riding. I’m like that and my best results – like my win at Paris-Tours or my podiums at Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem – have come by attacking and taking the initiative.”
Van Avermaet will be flanked by former world champion Thor Hushovd, who has had a mixed campaign to date and never enjoyed particular fortune at the Tour of Flanders. “It’s no doubt that Paris-Roubaix suits me better but I know I can be there for the win if everything goes right,” Hushovd said. “It’s a difficult race for me with all the climbs but I hope I have a good day because then I know everything can happen.”
Team manager John Lelangue, meanwhile, defended Gilbert’s decision to forgo the Tour of Flanders in favour of riding the Tour of the Basque Country, which gets underway on Monday.
“I was with Philippe in Monaco on Tuesday. He’s had a little cold since Paris-Nice and his main objectives since the beginning of the year are coming in the Ardennes,” Lelangue said. “Having him here not at 100% was not a wise solution. It was better to send him to the Basque Country to get six days of racing in his legs.”
It was a similar scenario for Taylor Phinney, who has his mind set on Paris-Roubaix. “Taylor’s main objective is Paris-Roubaix,” Lelangue said. “He hurt his knee in Gent-Wevelgem and it’s better that he rests to be 100% for next weekend.”