Greg Van Avermaet was one of the most aggressive, consistent riders at the front of the Spring Classics this year, riding away from the bunch on a regular basis and then attacking the breakaways to make the winning moves. But for all his effort and good form, Van Avermaet was unable to break through to the top step of the podium.
The 28-year-old BMC rider from Belgium came closest in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tour of Flanders, finishing second in those races to Ian Stannard (Team Sky) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), respectively.
In a very cold and wet Nieuwsblad, Van Avermaet had his best odds for a win as he approached the finish with Stannard for a two-up sprint. The pair had slipped away from the lead group just 17km from the line, and, on paper at least, Van Avermaet was clearly the faster sprinter of the two.
But after a bit of cat-and-mouse tactics, Van Avermaet found himself leading Stannard into the final kilometer. Still, the Belgian thought he could lead out the sprint and a still win the race. Stannard obviously had other ideas, and he narrowly edged Van Avermaet at the line.
"I think in Nieuwsblad I had [the win] a little bit already in my mind with 2km to go because I thought I could win the sprint easy from Ian Stannard," Van Avermaet recently told Cyclingnews in between stages at the Tour of California.
"I think the shape was pretty good there," he said. "But the weather conditions totally cracked me in the sprint. I was not reacting like normal. I was supposed to react a little bit faster and win the sprint easy, but he surprised me a little bit and it was not so good."
In Flanders, Van Avermaet again found himself in elite company near the front of the race as it flew into the closing kilometers. He had jumped away from the leaders about 30km from the finish, and Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) soon joined him.
Van Avermaet received no support from Vandenbergh, but still the duo gained half a minute on the chasing group of favorites, which included Cancellara, Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin), John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale), among others. Vanmarcke and Cancellara were eventually able to bridge up to the two leaders, and Cancellara won the four-up sprint finish to take his third Flanders title.
"Second at Flanders, I did nothing wrong I think," Van Avermaet said. "Just Fabian was strong in the sprint, and the tactics did not work out well for me there. I was pretty happy with my race, but yeah, it's a big difference."
Still, Van Avermaet is happy with his spring, even if the disappointment of coming so close without getting the wins is never far below the surface of his quite, friendly persona.
"It's nice spring that I had," he said. "But if I had won those two races it would have been a great, great spring for me. But it is like it is. I was pretty happy with my form. I was there all the time, and the difference between this year and last year is that I made the race. Last year was always suffering in the front group, but I could not do anything but follow. This year I was able to attack and to make the race hard. This is a nice step that I made."
Van Avermaet has been taking nice steps in his career since turning pro with Bodysol in 2006. He rode with Lotto for three years in 2007 through 2009 before moving to Omega Pharma in 2010. He signed with his current BMC team in 2011. The classics specialist has ridden four Grand Tours, including the Tour de France once in 2009. He won a stage of the Vuelta a Espana in 2008. But 2014 has been a breakout year of sorts for the veteran rider.
"I feel that I've progressed every year a little bit," he said. "But this year was a big step for me, and I'm happy to be there. And it gives confidence for next year, but also for this year there are still some nice things that are coming up, and I hope to win some nice races."
The Tour of California is Van Avermaet's first race back since ending his spring campaign at the Amstel Gold Race in April. The warm California weather provides a good place to return to racing, he said, with less pressure and stress than he faces in the Classics. He's at the race to rebuild his form and to work for team leaders Peter Stetina and Taylor Phinney. After California, Van Avermaet hopes to return home for the Tour of Belgium, the ZLM Tour and possibly a second shot at the Tour de France.
"Then it's back to the classics period at the end of the year," he said, "like Quebec and Montreal, where I'm always good, and then the Worlds."
If his spring form and aggression are any indication, Van Avermaet should be considered a favorite for those races as well.