Sitting in the grass on the inside of the Roubaix velodrome shortly after finishing Paris-Roubaix, the difference to the situation one year earlier was huge. In 2017, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) managed an incredible series of victories at the spring Classics, winning the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix. This time around Van Avermaet has had just one podium result in Harelbeke amidst a string of strong performances.
"I felt good, and I'm happy with my race," Van Avermaet said in what was his first reaction. Later, when glancing back on his spring Classics season, he explained how he was feeling. "You might think that I'm disappointed with my spring Classics season, but that's not the case. I rode the finale in every race. I was always in the first group. I was always in the group with riders who want to make the race. Last year, I knew it would be very hard to repeat the series of victories or even win one."
There wasn't too much disappointment to be spotted with the friendly 32-year-old Belgian rider. During the years before he started winning races, he was always one of the riders who tried to break the race apart and make the selection.
During the Tour de France of 2015, Van Avermaet morphed into a winning rider when he beat Sagan at the end of stage 13 in Rodez. Shifting back to a non-winning rider doesn't hurt Van Avermaet too much. Instead, he believed in his chances to end his spring Classics season with a win.
"I've got one more chance so let's see each other again next week," Van Avermaet said and laughed. "Of course I'll go for the win Amstel. There's a week to recover ahead of the Amstel. I'll feel this race in my legs for a few days."
The 2018 edition of Paris-Roubaix will have chopped into the bodies. The race kicked off as soon as the riders hit the first pavé sector at 163 kilometres from the finish when a crash split the peloton into two groups.
"It was a bit dangerous with the rain on the first pavé sectors, and from there it was a really hard race. That was good for the favourites and for me. It’s very demanding on the body and that’s no different for me at the end of the race," Van Avermaet said. Even though there were countless crashes and punctures during the race, Van Avermaet told Cyclingnews that he managed to stay out of trouble.
"Nothing happened to me. I was only caught behind the crash because I didn't want to do act like a madman. It kept my cool, and we bridged back up. I often try to avoid the risks as much as I can. Mostly, that's the key to success to avoid bad luck."
After 17 pavé sectors and 200 kilometres of racing - often a marking point - Van Avermaet accelerated in Auchy-lez-Orchies. Just before that moment, Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors) was caught back, and a small peloton was heading towards two long pavé sectors.
Half a minute ahead of the peloton, there were only three riders remaining from the early breakaway move. "There were still a lot of riders in the group. I sensed that it was a good moment to go, that's why I attacked twice. Everybody was on my wheel," Van Avermaet said.
On the right-hand side of the road, world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) moved to the front, and while remaining in the saddle, he powered away. "He made a counter-attack, and there wasn't a rider who reacted. I figured it was up to Quick-Step to close it back down. They still had four riders in the group at that moment, so it wasn't up to me to do that. I had just tried a couple of times.
"I might have gotten on the podium, but it's not that evident to come back here each time and deliver the performances. I did the best I can and probably read the race well. It wasn't that easy to finish it off."
Reading the race isn't easy. Journalists and fans try hard to rate the riders' performances and search for tactics to win the races. Ahead of Paris-Roubaix, the main topic was the dominance of the Quick-Step Floors team, the so-called wolfpack. Afterwards, Van Avermaet was asked if he wasn't focusing too much on Quick-Step Floors to close the gap back down on Sagan.
"Before the race, it's all about Quick-Step, and after the race, I'm asked if we didn't focus too much on Quick-Step ... It's not easy to race well that way. I'm trying my best to get on the podium. It wasn't enough, but I rode the finale again, and that's most important; I was among the best in the chase group."
Van Avermaet regretted that his move was marked whereas Sagan received a bit of space, but he applauded the performance from the Slovakian winner.
"He must've had good legs because the finish was still very far. From there you have to undergo the circumstances, see how close we would get in the finale and wait for the tough sections. Sagan did a nice race, I think, because we were chasing behind him with five or six riders who were going flat out.
"It wasn’t possible to get any closer. After the Carrefour de l’Arbre I hoped that we were going to get back in contention for first place. I hoped he would have a difficult moment when we were trying to get closer with the four of us, but everybody was on the limit. Then they started to attack, which made it really difficult. We briefly came closer I think, but then it stabilized again, making it hard to close the gap."
From there, it was about the battle for third place. On the penultimate pavé sector - the final real pavé sector - Van Avermaet was leading the chase group that also featured Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek).
The television coverage didn’t show what unfolded behind the two race leaders. "I was leading the group on the cobbles of Hem. Then Niki attacked. I had to dig really deep to get back to him. At that moment I decided not to let anybody get away anymore. I reacted on a move from Jasper and then Niki attacked. I wanted to react but my legs were full of lactic acid. It wasn't up to me. Sep should've reacted and then it might have been possible to sprint for third place. It's a pity I couldn't get Terpstra back. I feel sorry for Jasper and I've got nothing against him. I wanted to ride third place but had no answer ready against Niki's second attack."
Terpstra was out of reach and he captured the final podium spot. The three Belgians were left battling for third place. Vanmarcke was leading out the sprint and was eventually passed by both Stuyven and Van Avermaet, with the latter narrowly holding of Stuyven.
"I was among the strongest riders in the chase group, and I'd loved to have been on the podium, but it wasn’t possible. It doesn't matter too much if you’re third or fourth. Being on the top spot of the podium is what counts. In a few years time, people will have forgotten about a third or fourth place."