For a country that is crazy about cycling and football like Belgium, these are heydays. For the first time since 1986, the football team is playing the semi-final of the World Cup and a Belgian rider is riding in the yellow jersey, leading the Tour de France. Greg Van Avermaet is the lucky man.
The 33-year-old classics specialist came through the two first hectic stages without any time loss and featured among the riders who delivered BMC Racing's team time trial stage win on Monday afternoon in Cholet. Van Avermaet gets the maillot jaune over teammate Tejay van Garderen because he had better placings over the weekend.
It's the second time Van Avermaet has captured the maillot jaune. His first was earned after he managed a breakthrough victory, fighting it out on the uphill sprint against Peter Sagan in Rodez in 2016.
"The first time was really special. I know how special it is to wear the yellow jersey," Van Avermaet said shortly after completing the stage while warming down on the rollers. Later, after going through dozens of interviews, Van Avermaet explained the fun part of being the ‘maillot jaune'.
"You enjoy it the most when you're on your bike riding in the Tour de France. People recognize you and people cheer for you. It's the biggest race in the world. I've got the yellow jersey in my workout room. It's the only jersey I keep. I've got one more now."
Van Avermaet turned out to be a massive fan of the Belgian football team.
"Do you hear how sore my throat is," he asked the journalists around him in Cholet. "That's because of all the shouting we did in the bus during the game against Brazil."
When asked how it would feel to watch the semi-final between Belgium and France on Tuesday while wearing the yellow jersey, Van Avermaet laughed. "That would be massive."
During the opening stage, Richie Porte lost nearly a minute when he was part of a big crash. Several BMC teammates waited for their leader, but not Van Avermaet.
"I'm not the rider who'll wait at such a moment. They know that I'm riding for myself on certain moments. I've proven in Switzerland [stage 7 to Arosa - ed.] that I want to ride for Richie but on specific moments. If there's one rider who shouldn't wait, then it's me. I'll pay him back in a way. It takes away some of the pressure. That's a benefit."
BMC Racing clearly is a force to be reckoned with in the team time trials.
"We're specialists in this discipline. We knew Sky would be the team to beat and they were the only reference we had," Van Avermaet said. "We knew that if we beat them that we would've done a good time trial, put Richie back up in GC and maybe get the yellow jersey as icing on the cake."
When asked what the key was to get the win, Van Avermaet didn't hesitate.
"Work together," he said. "That's what a team time trial is about. The eighth rider is just as important as the others. Having six guys is really important and it keeps you fresh. Let the guys do the good pulls that they still have in them. We stayed really long together with eight guys. On this course that was the main key."
Team manager Jim Ochowicz is struggling to find a big major sponsor for next year, and riders were told they can begin looking to move to other teams. Porte is said to have a deal with Trek-Segafredo and Van Avermaet hoped to have gotten a deal ahead of the Tour start. That didn't happen. Jim Ochowicz wasn't able to come up with news about a sponsor either.
"For the moment, not. Today we were really focused on the TTT. We didn't speak about the future. Hopefully, the team can go through. The team deserves to be among the best three or five in the world. For the moment there's no news about me either. For the moment I'm focused on the sportive aspect of cycling."
When asked why it was so difficult for such a big team to find a sponsor, Van Avermaet referred to the business model.
"Our business model is not the best to invest in. You get a lot of exposure and your name on a jersey and TV time. There's no money flowing back. There's a lot of smart people in cycling but there's not a lot changing. Nevertheless, it's super nice for a sponsor to come in cycling. It's a great sport."
With this yellow jersey, Van Avermaet somewhat makes up for a spring classics campaign without major wins. That was a bit of a blow after capturing the Olympic title in 2016 and managing a 2017 spring classics season with four wins, including Paris-Roubaix. Van Avermaet was asked in the post-race press conference if this was some sort of consolation.
"Sure. The first goal was taking yellow. It was possible if we didn't lose any time. My spring campaign was pretty strong but without wins. There's an opportunity to do well here. I still have a few stages in mind where I can come close to the victory."
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