First up? Finally reaching the top step on the podium at Friday's GP Québec, where he's finished as runner-up twice but never won. Two days later he'll look to defend his title at the GP Montréal. Both WorldTour races are targets for the Belgian, who always comes to Canada looking to win, but both are also critical stepping stones for the big item still on his docket: winning a gold medal at the world championships in Bergen for Belgium. With just over two weeks to go, Van Avermaet says that by now, he should be there or thereabouts in terms of form.
"I need confirmation now from these two races of how I feel and what I have to do, but I'm always preparing well for these kind of races, always highly motivated. It's the last build-up to the Worlds, so the shape should be there," he told Cyclingnews at the team hotel in Québec ahead of Friday's race.
"It would be nice to take a win here and then you can go to Worlds with a good head. I'll try to do this, but I think I'm there already with the good shape."
The Belgian national squad was announced on Tuesday, relatively early compared to years past, with Van Avermaet set to share leadership with Philippe Gilbert. Often, the Québec and Montréal races – along with the final days of the Vuelta a España – have been the last opportunities for Worlds hopefuls to prove themselves to the selectors, but the Belgian federation made the final decision ahead of the curve this time around. Van Avermaet sees it as a good thing.
"It's always good to have the list of riders already on paper because then they can prepare and be ready for Worlds. Making the selection, in Belgium that's a victory for some riders to be on the team. That gives extra motivation to be ready and to support riders like me and Phil, to ride for us," he said. "I think we have a really good squad with really strong riders, and it's a good parcours for us, so I think we will maybe also be one the favourites."
The lumpy, Classics-style course in Norway certainly looks like one that should suit both riders, winners of this year's Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, respectively. It will be their first race as teammates since Gilbert left BMC for Quick-Step Floors.
There was a hint of tension within the team during their shared time there that may have motivated Gilbert's departure. As they now prepare to team up for Worlds, however, Van Avermaet says things are "going well" and spoke of the mutual respect between them.
"The problem in BMC was that I still had to ambition to be better and to have my own career," he said. "Phil was maybe a little bit blocking me because he already had his world title, he already had his Classics victories and I was a guy with ambition. I wanted to push through, which was not always easy because you have a big rider, a big character in front of you. Sometimes it's hard to show off yourself. But now I think we're pretty equal. I think that makes it easier to race together, because we have a lot of respect for each other, and you'll see in the race, that makes it easier for both of us."
Van Avermaet insisted that the course suited them both just as well and that neither one was slightly more favoured or more likely to get the call to lead the way in the closing kilometres. The Olympic champion was adamant that it was all about winning for Belgium, and to be sure, the second winningest squad in men's road race history may be in need of that attitude, having disappointed in multiple World Championships where they seemed favoured since last winning with Gilbert in 2012.
"I think it's similar for both of us, we're kind of the same type of rider," Van Avermaet said. "It's hard to make a decision between one of us because we are pretty similar. We will see. The race is hard enough, so that's good for us, and it's also a long distance race so that's also good. But the shape on the day off most of the time would make the last call. We'll see. If Belgium wins, if it's me or Phil it doesn't matter. The most important thing is that Belgium is winning."
At least outwardly unconcerned about sharing leadership with Gilbert, neither is Van Avermaet interested in talk about rivals. Defending champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will certainly be a threat, as will the possibility of a larger sprint bringing the likes of Colombia's Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) into play, but Van Avermaet wasn't singling out anyone in particular as a major rival.
"You could name 10 names that could win at Worlds but in the end, there's only one guy that's going to win and I hope it's me," he said. "I'll just focus on myself and I think I will try to do everything to be well-prepared and I'll give on that day everything I have. If it's not good enough win I'll still be happy. If it's good enough to win I will be even more happy."
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