In stark contrast to previous years, the team of Jim Ochowicz enters the Tour de France without the ambition to win the overall title. The former BMC Racing team, now CCC Team, arrived in the start town of Brussels without a GC rider. Instead, their biggest star is Belgian Greg Van Avermaet, who will lead the quest for stage wins and hopes for another spell in the yellow jersey.
At the beginning of the team’s press conference in Brussels Expo on Friday morning, Ochowicz emphasised that simply being there wasn't a given, one year ago, when the hunt for a new sponsor was still not bearing fruit.
"It’s been a great year, for all of us to be able to sit here and talk about the 2019 Tour de France. This is our 10th Tour de France as a team. It’s exciting. Our service course is in Belgium, too. We’re familiar with the area. We’ve got Belgian staff and riders," Ochowicz said.
Regarding the team’s objectives, the American manager highlighted stage wins. "Our line-up is different compared to other years. We’re not running for general classification this year. Our goal is to make the race interesting for us and the spectators, from tomorrow’s start until the finish in Paris," he said.
With an early stage win, the race lead and the maillot jaune could be an additional bonus. That is, if the team can ride a strong team time trial on stage 2. BMC were multiple TTT world champions but many of their big engines moved elsewhere during the sponsorship hunt.
"We’ve always been focused on the TTT. We did that in 2018 and it earned us the yellow jersey. We’re well prepared for it," Ochowicz said. Later, he told Cyclingnews that the team time trial was crucial with an eye to the following stages. "We’re not going to win the TTT and I don’t care what placing we achieve. What matters is the time gap. We need to stay within 25 seconds of the team who wins the TTT."
Greg Van Avermaet carries the weight of the team on his shoulders. Last year, the Belgian rider moved into the race lead on the third stage of the Tour when the team won the team time trial in Cholet. He held onto the yellow jersey for a week, until the second Alpine stage.
"The TTT was always really important for us. It’s an exciting discipline for me. I like doing it. We’ve been training on the discipline since December. It’s a showpiece for us," Van Avermaet said on Friday morning.
"It’s different now, compared to other years. I’ve become one of the drafters. I feel more useful because in the past I featured as a buffer for the GC riders. I don’t think we can win the TTT but we have to play our role. I hope for a top-five result."
The Spring classics specialist excels in short uphill finishes and will be targeting the punchy stage from Binche in Belgium to Épernay in France, which comes one day after the TTT.
"It’s similar to the stages I was close to in the previous years. When you have good legs, you automatically come to the front. I’ve always been good on uphill finishes. It’s the reason why I did the recon," Van Avermaet said.
"I’m well prepared for it. It’s early in the Tour. It’s good to get a good result when coming out of Belgium. The first 10 days are really important. If you can get something in the bag, you carry that with you. It’s important for the team."
Compared to other years, Van Avermaet is the clear leader of the team, but he’s not only seeing the positives of that; he recently stated that the team should be strengthened as he seems to carry the weight of expectation throughout the year.
The CCC Team have just five wins on the eve of the Tour de France: the team victory in Hammer Stavanger and two wins for both Van Avermaet and Patrick Bevin. The Belgian leads the Tour team for CCC.
"It’s different without a GC rider. I was always happy to have a GC rider in the team. I had freedom when Richie Porte was in the team. It was easier to pick out the stages where I wanted to perform. It was hard for us as a team to show ourselves when he crashed out," Van Avermaet told Cyclingnews.
"In the mountains I can’t carry the weight of the team to perform. With Cadel Evans it was different. He was more demanding. I still had to prove myself and didn’t have a lot of freedom. With Richie, my status was different. If you’ve won before, the team asks you what your goals can be."
He added that the opening stage was likely to finish in a bunch sprint, despite the presence of two climbs that featured as decisive climbs on the old Tour of Flanders route: the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg.
"The Muur is quite early but too late after the start. The breakaway will be gone and teams will control. There will be stress before the Muur and the Bosberg but there’s time for riders to come back. It’s too far from the finish. Image-wise it’s going to be nice to see the Tour de France peloton on the Flemish climbs but it’s not going to be decisive in the Tour," Van Avermaet said.
"The stage is not that easy. The sprinters are the favourites. With the small climbs and a cobblestone section, you ride in front and ready for anything that can happen. That’s the way we need to race."