Just like the song says, it all comes round again. And any rider starting their 16th season as a pro could surely be forgiven for having a sense of Groundhog Day as they drag the suitcase out of the wardrobe and head to the airport for their first race of the year.
However, Greg Van Avermaet is hoping his second season with AG2R Citroën will actually be radically different in feel to the second half of 2021.
As he said in an interview Cyclingnews late last year, “It’s the first time that I noticed my body didn’t respond. Before, even if I wasn’t winning, I was always there, but now I was not even being there.”
It even got to the point where for the first time in 14 years, Van Avermaet did not ride the World Championships. The fact that the battle for the rainbow jersey was taking place on home soil in Belgium rubbed even more salt in that particular wound.
And now? After quickly recovering from COVID-19 during his off-season, with a solid winter of training behind him and the start of his season at the Étoile de Bessèges in the south of France, the former Olympic champion seems confident he’ll have a very different kind of year in 2022.
“That’s the good thing about the winter, it’s good to have this chance of a reset,” Van Avermaet tells Cyclingnews.
“You can have a bad feeling when you try and it doesn’t work. But over the winter you can analyse what’s at fault, you can just stop and begin your build-up again. And that’s how I’ve tried to do it.
“I’ve had a good spell of six to eight weeks complete rest then started my training rides, doing good work-outs, and hopefully my body will respond. At the moment I feel really good, I’ve stayed training in Spain for a long time so I’ll try to be ready for the races.”
Barring a possible addition of the Ruta del Sol this February, Van Avermaet’s race programme is very similar to that of years past.
“If you’re doing the Tour and the Classics, there’s not so much to change,” he said. “So I’ll be there at Nieuwsblad, Kuurne and then Tirreno, Strade Bianche, Milano-San Remo and the North. The normal programme for a Classics guy and hopefully that’ll work.”
Van Avermaet insists that he has managed to get back to a point, mentally and physically, where he’s ready to hit the ground running in 2022. The familiar pattern of losing form over the winter and then slowly honing himself for action again has helped in restoration of morale.
“I’m a guy who loves riding my bike, targeting my goals and that still motivates me to do well in the Classics,” he says, “so it’s not a big issue to try and go for them again.
“It’s still a kind of cool feeling to go into the off-season knowing you can do what you want, get a bit lazy and a little bit fat then start to get serious again, get the kilometres in and so on. You feel a little bit better every time, you know you’re a bit more in shape, and that feeling is like a drug. It still motivates me.”
At 36, Van Avermaet recognises that his time as a pro is finite.
“I know there aren’t so many years left now and if I want make something of it I have to perform and give the best of myself in the next few months,” he says.
When it comes to maintaining his self-confidence it must help that Van Avermaet has one of the most varied palmarès in the peloton, with Olympic gold and Paris-Roubaix among his most famous wins, but there’s even a victory in the Vuelta a España’s points classification lurking among his greatest hits as well.
Certainly, it has netted him all sorts of fans, with Miguel Indurain recently among those praising Van Avermaet for his versatility.
“I didn’t know that, but it’s great,” Van Avermaet says when told of Indurain’s admiration, “and I’ve been a big fan of Big Mig ever since I was young, though the first time when I met him I was just a small kid, so I didn’t know who he was.
“I was on the roadside watching the Tour and I think he’d retired already, but he got out three or four cars away and a lot of people went over and I was like - who is this?
“But I had my photo taken with him. Such a big rider - you’re always with your mouth open when you’re sitting at a table with such a guy. It’s cool he has a bit of respect for me, too!”
When it comes to the race where Indurain shone the brightest, the Tour de France, Van Avermaet has already been singled out by teammate and AG2R GC contender Ben O’Connor as likely to be crucial for providing support for him in the early cobbled stages this summer. Van Avermaet says is happy to have that role.
“For sure. Ben did great last year at the Tour and I think he can do well again. Hopefully we’ll protect him well in those early stages, and he might even gain some time there on the other favourites, and then when the climbs start he’ll have the legs to kick off again.”
At the same time, Van Avermaet believes there will likely be enough flexibility in the team plan for him to go for stage wins, much as he did in one of his previous teams.
“Back at BMC we did the same thing, it’s not good to put all the pressure on your leader,” he points out.
“You have to consider the team as a whole, see the strong points and weak points and I think at some point there’ll be a good opportunity for one of the other guys in the team to head off and take off the pressure in the early part of the Tour.”
Beyond the Tour, Van Avermaet will have a sense of unfinished business with the World Championships in Australia after missing out on selection in 2021.
“The most important thing is that I deserve that place,” he says. “Last year I wasn’t good enough to perform my role, because if I go I want to go as a leader or the guy who rides the final to help the leader to win. If I can’t do that, then better not select me.
“From what I’ve seen, I think the parcours in Australia is quite good for me. So I hope to be ready for it and part of it.”
The global goal for Van Avermaet in 2022 is consistency: something he did not value as much as he should have in the past, but which he has grown to see as all but priceless after his difficult 2021.
“I was consistent for so many years and it got to the point when actually I was not so aware of it. But then in the last half of the season when I lost it I was like ‘ach, I miss this a lot,’” he says.
“I realised maybe I should be content with fifth and place or fourth, because a lot of guys are trying for that and don’t get there but I didn’t appreciate it so much.”
At the same time he has managed to turn things around both mentally and physically.
“It was not so nice, but on the other hand, it made me try to see how it was not the end of the road,” he said of 2021.
“Now I just want to be consistent, even if winning a race would be obviously great. I don’t think it’ll be easy but it’s always the main goal. So just reach my level again and see how close I can get to the win.”
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