"He was ready to win the Tour of Flanders but instead he’s ended up in hospital," Valerio Piva said dolefully as he stood in Oudenaarde's main square on Sunday evening. The BMC directeur sportif knows the Classics are a cruel business, but it won’t have tempered his disappointment one jot at the end of a day that saw Greg Van Avermaet forced out of the race when he broke his collarbone in a crash with more than 100 kilometres remaining.
Van Avermaet had lined up in Bruges on Sunday morning as one of the principal favourites for victory in the Tour of Flanders, having seemingly throwing aside the inhibitions that had made him Belgian cycling's nearly man over the past five years.
Already winner of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno-Adriatico, Van Avermaet must have started to believe that 2016 was going to be different. Even the bout of illness that saw him miss E3 Harelbeke last week did little to dent his newfound assurance.
As the peloton sped towards the section of cobbles at Haaghoek, however, some 102 kilometres from home, Van Avermaet's Ronde came to a sudden halt. He was one of five BMC riders brought down in a crash, and the worst affected.
Van Avermaet sat stunned on the roadside, and quickly realised that his race was over. He disconsolately threw his helmet against the ground and then crumpled into tears as the initial anger gave way to despair. He was taken to hospital shortly afterwards and it was later confirmed that he had sustained a broken right collarbone.
In a recording released by his BMC team on Sunday evening, Van Avermaet confirmed that he would miss Paris-Roubaix. His Classics campaign was over.
"What can I say? I was really disappointed to be on the ground. I tried to stand up but when you have something broken it's not possible," Van Avermaet said. "I think I'll need some days to think about it. And hopefully I can come back stronger.
"For me it's a big disappointment because Flanders and Roubaix are the biggest races of my season and I cannot be there. It's not a good situation but hopefully I can handle it and come back stronger."
Five riders down
Van Avermaet was one of many fallers in the opening 100 miles of Sunday’s race, with fellow podium contenders Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) and Arnaud Démare (FDJ) – not to mention his teammate Marcus Burghardt – already forced out of the race by the time of his misfortune.
The crash occurred as Manuel Quinziato led a phalanx of BMC riders, including Van Avermaet, towards the head of the peloton as the pace ratcheted up ahead of the cobbles of Haaghoek. Quinziato was the first to fall, with Van Avermaet, Daniel Oss, Taylor Phinney and Michal Schär also coming down in the same incident.
"Quinziato was in front and somebody bumped his handlebars. All the others were on his wheel and they came down. It wasn't his fault. He was touched and fell down," Piva said. "It's nobody's fault, really, it's just the stress of the race. People were battling for position."
Piva was quickly on the scene after the mass crash, and it was immediately apparent that Van Avermaet would take no further part in proceedings. "He was angry of course. I was angry too," Piva said. "But you can’t do anything in those moments. You have to look to the future."
Even so, the sense of what might have been will surely linger. "He was ready," Piva agreed. "It was a situation where he was perfectly prepared, he was coming in with wins under his belt. Mentally he was very good. But there's nothing to say. And now he's ended up in hospital."
BMC's cobbled classics team has been built exclusively around Van Avermaet in recent years, and the mantle of leadership fell to Daniel Oss in the finale here, though more in hope than expectation. The Italian was in the mix on the Kwaremont, and eventually finished in 16th place, just over a minute behind winner Peter Sagan (Tinkoff).
"Oss and Jempy [Drucker] were the two last men for Greg so we know they had the distance. They did everything, but without a leader it's hard to get everybody focused again," he said. "We couldn't do any more than that."
Van Avermaet's absence will be keenly-felt by BMC at Paris-Roubaix next, though there was some encouragement to be drawn from the fact that Taylor Phinney (61st at 7:10) came through the Ronde unscathed after working for Oss following the crash. Phinney, who is still working his way back to his old condition after breaking his leg in 2014, had been a surprise addition to BMC’s Tour of Flanders team.
"This was a positive step forward for him ahead of Roubaix but he's coming from a long way, so we're not dreaming of anything specific," Piva said. "But the fact that he's lasted so long with the first riders here is a good sign. I'm convinced he can do a good race at Roubaix."