Questions and doubts often overshadowed Greg Van Avermaet's early career but after a number of near-misses the 31-year-old has reached a new pinnacle in his career, after a year that included an Olympic gold and a hugely successful Tour de France. Having never questioned his own ability, he has now become the complete package – a rider who has turned promising talent into victories, and what’s more, he is even hungrier for more.
At the Marriott Hotel in Denia, even the limp and crutches can't take the smile off Van Avermaet’s face as he wobbles in and sits down with a small group of international press. A recent ankle break and the resulting surgery may have dented an off-season punctuated by parties and awards ceremonies, but the BMC Racing Classics leader is still brimming with confidence.
"It was my best year so far," he says with the same broad smile that beamed all over the world after his exhilarating Rio Olympic wins.
"I had this crash," he says as he glances down to his ankle, "but aside from that everything went well. I missed my favourite races likes Flanders, Roubaix and Amstel but I had the Olympic Games, Tirreno, Omloop, the Tour de France and Montreal. There were a lot of good things about this season. There were more up than downs, and I was consistent from Qatar until the Worlds in Qatar."
The feeling of satisfaction emanating from Van Avermaet, and from within his BMC team, is understandable. For several years they appeared to be underachieving in unison, with the Belgian rider pigeonholed as a rider repeatedly on the cusp of greatness but missing the necessarily skillset or killer instinct to deliver. Either Cancellara or Boonen were too strong or Van Avermaet wasn't quite ready. That's all changed now.
"I'm where I wanted to be, and I had to fight a lot of years to be in this place but I've finally made it. I'm 31, and I'm at the top of cycling now in the Classics. Finally, what I thought was in me is now out and I'm having big victories in the season.
"Things started to click at the stage win at the Tour in Rodez in 2015, and that year was another year that had good victories. I think 2016 had the extra touch with the Olympic win but also being there in all the major races, and trying to do something."
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This year Van Avermaet had a spring campaign marked by peaks and troughs. A win in Omloop was followed by the overall win in Tirreno and fifth in Milan-San Remo. Back on home turf he crashed out of the Tour of Flanders and missed the rest of the spring, but he bounced back to win a superb stage at the Tour and indulge his team in a rare spell in the yellow jersey. The Olympics and the win in Montreal followed, but the close-season was marked by a mountain biking accident that hampered his training.
"I'm a little bit behind now, that's for sure, but it's been a busy winter. Maybe it's not a bad issue to have but I've been on my bike for a week now, and I have to be careful that I don't do too much too soon," he said.
"I feel good on the bike, and I feel healthy. I'll be a little late to the season, but when the big goals come around I'll be ready. I need a good January; that's for sure but until now I'm confident I won't miss anything. I'll be ready for the first classics."
Missing from Van Avermaet's palmarès is a Tour of Flanders victory, and while there is still plenty of time for him to achieve his main goal, one feels that the breakthrough in 2016 could shepherd in a continued phase of success.
"I'm ready to show what I can do, and I'm confident that there's more in me," said Van Avermaet. "For Flanders, they're passing my hometown, the smallest village in Belgium, and that's both something special and something strange, but I hope they don't change the route too much. I was a fan of Bruges, and it was one of the nicest starts of the year and the Muur, I train on it almost every day on it.
"First I want to win Flanders, and that's where my focus will be. I'll do Amstel and after that I'll decide where my focus will be and if I do Liege. It's all possible, but first I need to win a big Classic. Flanders is still the most important to win and I know that I've been saying it every year but I want to win it."
More opportunities with Gilbert departure
With Philippe Gilbert reaching the final phase of his career and moving to another team, Van Avermaet has one less problem to worry about. By his own admission, the pair had a respectful but tense relationship at times – both at Lotto and then at BMC – but Gilbert's move frees up more chances for Van Avermaet. Any concerns over dual leadership in races have been replaced by the unequivocal backing at BMC.
"It opens a few other races for me. We always split things, but I've never had an Amstel where I rode for myself so that's now an option. I like Amstel and it's one of my favourite races, so I'm happy to ride for myself," Van Avermaet told the press.
"I've always said that I don't have big problems with Phil, but we are the same type of riders. I've a lot of respect for his career and his cycling but sometimes it was hard for me because I was the guy who wanted to come up and he was already there. It wasn't easy, and every finish that was good for me was also good for him. The situation wasn't easy because he was a champion and wanted to win races and I wanted the same. That's sometimes hard in life."
Life as a pro cyclist is always hard, always demanding and it never relents. Yet, for Van Avermaet, the doubts have been replaced by confidence, the near misses by victories, and if he can regain his best form in time for the spring, who knows, perhaps a Tour of Flanders crown.
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