Greg Van Avermaet scored another podium finish at the Tour of Flanders, but otherwise his 2021 season was a washout. During the Spring Classics, he wasn't quite at the level that have previously taken him to victories at Paris-Roubaix, E3-Harelbeke, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and Gent-Wevelgem, but it wasn't so bad compared to the second half of his campaign.
Anonymous at the Tour de France, forced to play domestique at the Tokyo Olympic Games, and not selected at all for the World Championships, it was a rough few months for the Belgian rider, and a disappointing end to his first season with AG2R Citroën Team.
Disappointment and a bitter taste remained when Van Avermaet sat down with Cyclingnews this week at a pre-season gathering in the French Alps, where he dissected his season and the possible causes of his malaise, including the COVID-19 vaccine.
He also had his say on the Belgian Worlds fall-out, having to shout as his best mate and teammate Oliver Naesen, and why he still believes he can win the elusive Tour of Flanders.
Cyclingnews (CN): How do you look back on your 2021 season?
Greg Van Avermaet (GVA): Not so great. I didn’t reach my objectives, especially in the second part of the season. I had in mind to do a good Tour de France, a good Olympics, and a good Worlds, but by having no condition I missed out on all those goals – even on selection for Worlds. That was a big disappointment for me.
It’s actually the first time in my career that I noticed my body didn’t respond. Before, even if I wasn’t winning, I was always there, but now it was not even being there. The positive point was that my spring campaign wasn’t that bad – a nice podium in Flanders, some top 10s – but the second part of the season is still most in my mind.
CN: You mentioned the possibility of the vaccine holding you back, having received your second dose in June. Do you still pinpoint that as the cause?
GVA: I think so. It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s not the only point. Maybe I did too much training on it. The biggest mistake we probably made was having the second dose just before a big effort like the Dauphiné, which is one of the hardest races of the season. I think this affected my peak. I had a good level but couldn’t reach my peak anymore. That’s the only explanation I can give.
We didn’t think enough about the side issues. A normal person might not feel any side effects, but the problem is you already put stress on your immune system with the vaccine, then and if you stress your body even more with training, it’s hard to recover from it. I didn’t have big problems, I felt healthy, it’s just that when I really needed to perform at my peak, it didn’t come. Maybe if I wasn’t an athlete I wouldn’t even have noticed.
CN: How long did you feel those effects?
GVA: I think it carried on the whole season, because I never really stopped. The goals were too close. It was quite frustrating because normally I’m quite good in managing basic good results. Doing the same training and having no results was quite hard.
CN: Vaccination is a sensitive subject, particularly with professional athletes. Do you regret it?
GVA: Of course I would do it again but I would time it better. Vaccination is good but I would do it at a different period of the year - not at time when you have to do Dauphiné, Tour, and Olympics. I think especially for athletes we have to take care not to do it in a high-intensity period, and also take enough time to recover from it.
CN: Could any other factors be to blame? You were, for example, in a new team and a new environment.
GVA: Yeah but the thing is that the beginning of the year was actually quite good for me. I was at a capable level and happy with it. There were some different factors at play but it’s more like a ‘plus-plus’ thing. I would have preferred to have the situation in my old team, because it’s not nice in a new team when you say ‘I don’t know what it is but I don’t feel great’. But the team were great in giving me the support and the faith that I needed.
CN: Talk us through that key part of your season, from the Tour de France through the Olympics and then Worlds (or no Worlds)?
GVA: At the Tour I was not on my level. I tried as much as possible to help Ben [O’Connor] and try for some results but the Tour went by and I was soon focusing on the Olympics. As defending champion I wanted to do more, but I took the role of working on the front at the beginning. If I saw the performances at the Tour, I think that was the best thing, just to do something helpful.
Missing Worlds in my home country, and on a parcours that suits me so well and that I know so well was a big disappointment. After being selected for my country 14 times, not being there was very hard for me.
CN: Would you have selected yourself if you were in charge?
GVA: No, they made the right decision. I was not ready for it. The guys selected were the best in their roles. The role I’d prefer was being in the final as a back-up but I saw I would not be capable of that. You’ve got to be honest with yourself, with your teammates, with your country, even if it’s not a nice feeling.
CN: There has been a big fall-out over the Belgian performance. What do you make of it all?
GVA: The problem is we have a lot of media attention and pressure on the team in our home country. It was already too much from the week before the race, all the talk about who is doing what. It doesn’t benefit the atmosphere in the team. Sometimes, they analyse the Worlds too much in terms of what everyone did. In normal races if you don’t do anything for your leader, maybe nobody notices, but if you don’t do it in Worlds at the right moment, everyone over-analyses it.
Also, I have the feeling the riders wanted to overperform, to help too much, and that’s something that’s created in Belgium. The riders even wanted to ride too much for Wout [van Aert]. It wasn’t necessary, because it only puts extra pressure on him. In this case it didn’t help the Belgian team. This was on the whole team but it was also on Remco [Evenepoel], because of the Olympics where he wasn’t so good or didn’t help Wout.
At Worlds he wanted to help Wout, got over enthusiastic to start riding, and it didn’t help him or Wout to do a better performance. They had to be more calm. They started talking too much about Wout only, which I would also have done internally but not externally. I’d say ‘Jasper Stuyven can win also, Remco Evenepoel can go from far’, then on the inside it should be clear Wout is the only leader. Then the other teams would ride differently. If everyone knows your strategy, they can prepare for it.
Saying that, it was bad luck that Wout had a slightly lesser day. If he had one of his super days, tactics don’t matter so much and he can still win the race. It’s a lot of talking but it’s also the legs that decide the race.
CN: Van Aert and Stuyven have publicly criticized Evenepoel, as has Eddy Merckx. Is this fair?
GVA: He’s a big talent and you can’t underestimate being a top Belgian guy from the age of 18. The pressure and attention in Belgium doesn’t help a young guy at that point of his career. The only bit of the story I didn’t understand was how they discussed the roles, because if they say he should not ride, and he rode, that’s a bit strange. That’s black or white. I was not there in the meeting, so only the guys can say if it was like this, but it seems he got over-excited. He didn’t do anything really wrong, but it would have been much better if he could wait until the end to do this. It’s just a mistake of being young. He can do some great things, but he still has some things to learn, like tactics and reading the races. But it will come with the years.
CN: Going back to yourself, you were part of a new Classics force at AG2R, alongside your friend Oliver Naesen and fellow new signing Bob Jungels. How disappointing was it not to have had the impact people expected?
GVA: The problem was that I was – in Classics terms – only OK, Oli missed his legs from other years, and Bob wasn’t performing well. If three leaders aren’t performing on their normal level, it’s hard to do good things. We knew with Van der Poel and Van Aert that it wouldn't be easy to win so it was a key point to help each other to be capable of beating those guys. So you can be there with them but if you’re already finding it hard, then you cannot play your tactics. Without the legs it’s impossible.
CN: The race that stands out is E3. You and Naesen were both there in the final with Van der Poel, and the QuickStep duo of Kasper Asgreen and Florian Sénéchal, but Asgreen wins solo.
GVA: That was super frustrating. We rode so hard to get Asgreen back, we got him back, then I was just in front doing my pull, and he attacks again. I was hoping Oli would react immediately, but one second, two seconds, three seconds, four seconds… it did not come. If you give Asgreen four seconds again, it’s hard to close it again. That was the moment we lost the race. I was super angry at the bus.
CN: What did you say to Naesen afterwards?
GVA: I told him he had to react.
CN: Was it easy to vent your frustrations openly, given you’re such close friends?
GVA: It was a strange situation. I was pissed off after it. I said ‘if I’m in front and somebody attacks, you have to react. He said ‘yeah, I know but I was not able to.’ Then what can you do? You say sorry to each other and next time we have to do better. But the problem is you’re not too often in a situation like this. It’s frustrating for both of us. We were first angry at ourselves and angry at each other. Sometimes things don’t work out like you want.
CN: But you’re still friends…
GVA: No, we don’t see each other anymore [laughs].
CN: Are you confident in general for next year?
GVA: I hope so. I think it’s important to put a good reset on it, rest as well as possible – longer than normal – to let my body recover. I’m confident, though. I still have a lot of ambition. It’s the Tour of Flanders that’s still attracting me the most. Being third again – ok, I was never in a situation where I could win it – but it shows it’s a good goal to have. I want to keep going, keep giving the best of myself, and hopefully I can start having some decent results again. It’s funny, sometimes I went crazy from all the top-10s without ever winning. Now I was be super happy with a nice top-10.
CN: You’ll turn 37 next spring. Are you feeling any effects of age?
GVA: For sure my strongest period is behind me – I can’t deny that – but I still have a lot of energy in me. I need more recovery and I need to be more specific in training than when I was 31, but there are enough examples of riders being capable of winning big races at 37. I’ve always done the right thing with my body, being careful with everything. I think I’m still capable of doing something good.
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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