As the BMC team became CCC, following a frantic and protracted search from Jim Ochowicz for a new sponsor, more than half the riders jumped ship. Greg Van Avermaet, however, stayed put and the Belgian Classics star now finds himself as the talisman of a set-up that looks very different indeed.
At the team's December training camp in Denia, Spain – their first full get-together – Van Avermaet sat down with Cyclingnews to discuss why he stayed loyal, how he's building a new-look Classics group, and what he expects from the 2019 campaign.
Cyclingnews: You spent most of the season with uncertainty hanging over you. How stressful was that?
Greg Van Avermaet: Quite stressful. Every rider wants to sign before the Tour. The problem is you can argue about contracts and what your team and other teams can offer you, but this time it wasn't sure my team was going to exist anymore, so it was different. I said to Och 'I want to stay loyal to the team and I can keep it going a little longer', but I was not expecting it to take that long. In the end, I'm super happy CCC decided to come in – for myself but also to keep this going for Andy Rihs, who sponsored cycling for so many years.
CN: You could have signed elsewhere almost instantly. Why was it so important to stay loyal?
GVA: They supported me over so many years. I arrived in 2011 as more of a helper for others, and I made my way to the top. I finally came to the situation where I wanted to be, I had to fight for a pretty long time to be capable as a leader for the classics, and the last two years I was in this position, so I didn't want to just give it away for nothing. If your boss supports you over all those years I'm not going be the first guy who leaves at the first offer, so it's about respect, and being honest with each other, which Jim was with me. He was always clear, saying 'we have no sponsor but we're working on it, you can decide if you stay or not and how long to wait'. I was always trusting him, and he was always really correct with me.
CN: Were you disappointed that so many others left?
GVA: I was disappointed for sure because you feel that if a few guys wait a few weeks longer then for sure they're still in this team and you can build again from there. It's quite hard because they had good offers, and if you hear Jim doesn't have a sponsor then it's normal to sign somewhere else. Also other teams were putting pressure on by saying 'you have to sign soon'. If only a part of them – maybe [Damiano] Caruso, Stefan Kung, or Rohan [Dennis] – had stayed, we'd have a different view and different options for this year. But it was all a bit late.
CN: How confident are you in the project?
GVA: It's a different concept. With BMC we were one of the top five WorldTour teams, we were capable of winning almost every race we entered, with GC guys, me at the Classics, Rohan or Stefan as TT guys. We were all over the place. Now it's a different team, a different tactic. We're more in the middle, I think. We have a good budget but not the biggest. If we maybe had a sponsor in April, you can make a better rider roster, but I think the team is good enough to make some good results, especially in the Classics. Then in one-week races and Grand Tours it's a more open strategy where we can go into breaks and go from there.
CN: Do you envisage more money being spent and more riders coming in at the end of 2019?
GVA: We have 23 riders for the moment, which is not that many, so there's already some space. Most guys signed for two years so that's what we have. We have some good riders, it's not like we have to change the whole roster. We have a capable group with a good spirit and that's the most important thing - you have to have a good spirit and build results from there. But for sure we are capable next year, when more riders are free, to do something else, to hire a GC guy or something. That's possible.
CN: Do you feel any added pressure as the overwhelming figurehead of the team?
GVA: It's a different situation. I always put a lot of pressure on myself, but I don't think there's any extra pressure from team. I know what I am capable of and if I'm on a good level, I will perform. The good thing is that because I stayed, this team was possible. I'm really happy about that, and that the whole team can keep working – the soigneurs, the staff and everyone – so for me it's nice to be in that position.
Van Avermaet makes himself an espresso at a recent CCC Team camp (Bettini Photo)
Building a new Classics group
CN: In terms of the Classics, do you feel you have a strong enough group to support you?
GVA: Sure. It's always a bit sad seeing Jempy [Drucker] or Stefan [Kung] leaving, but the replacements are there. A few Belgian guys, a few of my friends, are joining. There should be a good combination. I'm 100 per cent sure the guys for the Classics are 100 per cent behind me, and also good enough to support me. On this side not much changes in the end. The most important thing is that I'm in good shape and I make results. It's more the other side, the other races, where we have to fill up some things, that's going to be harder.
CN: Who are the key riders who'll be by your side?
GVA: Lukasz Wiznioskwi is a good singing I think. We have Nathan Van Hooydonck, then Gijs Van Hoecke and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck. Michael Schar and Fran Ventoso stay in the team. We have already seven guys and we have some other Polish guys who are capable. I think we should be strong enough to make some good results in the Classics.
CN: You personally asked Van Keirsbulck to sign. How important will he be?
GVA: It's always decided together with directors. You put some names on table, and they say whether it's possible or not. Guillaume was one of the first names that came to me because he had some good years with Quick-Step, then went to Wanty and did some good results but was more in the shadow. He's still quite young, has a good mind for the Classics, knows the roads and how to position himself. Those are sometimes the key factors - you can use him straight away, instead of some young guys maybe from other countries who need to learn the roads and when to move up. For me that's one of the most important things to have from helpers.
CN: And Wizniowski?
GVA: Wizniowski has the perfect profile, I think. He's a big talent. He's still young. He showed some good things but was lost a bit at Sky. I think he can come up. He's a good TT specialist, and already has a few years' experience in the Classics. I think he's really the kind of guy who can ride finales again and be with me in the big races.
CN: Is he going to be the main guy for you deep into the races?
GVA: This role is maybe now for Wizniowski, but we will see in the races. It's always about performing and stepping up, and it will be the same with those guys. We'll see who's performing well and who will ride the finales.
CN: Do you fear it will take time to gel together?
GVA: It's important to get to know each other. We're already training together, we'll do a lot of races, like Valencia, with almost the whole Classics squad, which was impossible before because we always had a GC guy and a TT specialist to put in. But now we go with almost the same team to most races, which should be an advantage when it comes to the Classics.
Van Avermaet shows off the new CCC Team kit (Bettini Photo)
One big win worth more than a few small ones
CN: After winning almost everything in 2017, it was a spring of near misses in 2018. How do you assess your campaign?
GVA: I had the feeling it never really went my way. I was good enough to win but things never went my way. You always need some luck, like the way I won Gent-Wevelgem the year before, to win those kind of races.
CN: Does your status change now?
GVA: When you win everything, the year after Is always hard, especially in the Classics, which are so tactical. If you're a GC guy you just have to ride up climb as fast as possible but the Classics are also about tactics. Everyone looks at you, moves faster onto your wheel, your name comes up in every team's meeting. It's the pressure and attention you have if you're riding at a good level. So I hope this year I step back a little again and hopefully it will become easier for me.
CN: Niki Terpstra has left Quick-Step. How does that change things?
GVA: They had the strength where they always had the numbers, and also last year the best guy in the race. Terpstra is still going to be good, he has his level and in any team he'll be there, but for him it's a different strategy because Quick-Step always play with numbers. Now I feel with Terpstra moving, with Valgren going to Dimension Data, a lot of teams have a good leader for the Classics, so makes it more open. I expect more open racing and more teams to take control. The last few years it was only us and Quick-Step to control the break from the start, or Bora sometimes. Now more teams have ambitions and are going to help out more.
CN: Jim Ochowicz spoke of the team winning 20 races in 2019. What are your personal ambitions?
GVA: Just winning one big thing is the most important thing. I only have six or seven races in the Spring Classics period, so if I can win one of those it's a big step. I missed out this year, I rode well but never won anything. A rider like me wants to win, so I hope I can pick up with a victory again. I'm also not a guy who wins 10 races year. You can't expect me to win a lot because I'm not a sprinter, but if you can just make one big win, that can count for more than a few small ones, so I hope to do that.
CN: The Tour of Flanders is now the big gap on the palmarès. Has it become an obsession?
GVA: No, not an obsession - not yet. It might never come. I'd still be really happy with my career. If you told me as a young guy that I'd win all the races I have, I'd never have believed it. I'm pretty relaxed about it; if Flanders never comes, that's how it is. But I have a lot of ambition to win it. It's not that it has to be, but I would like it.