Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) explained to reporters after stage 1 of the Tour de France on Saturday that as soon as the route of the 2019 Tour's route was presented last year, when he discovered that the Muur van Geraardsbergen would decide the race's first polka-dot mountains jersey, he'd dreamed of taking it.
"I figured it would be nice if a Belgian rider could be first to crest the top, and even nicer if it was me," he explained. "I had the benefit that I was allowed to shake hands with King Philippe of Belgium, which allowed me to stand at the front on the start line. Otherwise, it would've been much harder [to have got away in the break].
"I was constantly asked about the opportunity, but I kept denying that I was interested," Van Avermaet added. "I didn't want to talk about it because everybody takes on that news, and then a few more riders would have been interested, which I didn't want. I had to stay calm."
The Belgian managed to slip away early on the stage with Natnael Berhane (Cofidis), Katusha-Alpecin's Mads Würtz Schmidt and Xandro Meurisse of Wanty-Groupe Gobert, and then outfoxed Meurisse to take the maximum two points on the climb of the category-3 Muur after 43km of the 194.5km stage.
Although Meurisse then managed to win the single point available on the following category-4 Bosberg, Van Avermaet's lead in the mountains competition was safe, despite both riders ending the day with two points each, due to the fact that he had finished first on the higher-categorised climb.
"I heard that he'd said something about it," Van Avermaet laughed when it was put to him that compatriot and former pro Tom Boonen had said on Belgian TV that he thought Van Avermaet had blocked Meurisse on the Muur to win the KoM points.
"I don't think I made any foul moves," he continued. "I just used my experience. But Meurisse is a good rider, and we'll see more from him during the coming three weeks. He was very good at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and he's done altitude training. I'm tracking him a bit, and for me he's one of the most underrated Belgian riders."
Van Avermaet left his three breakaway companions to it and dropped back to the peloton to save his legs for another day once he knew that he'd secured the polka-dot jersey, and also later featured on the stage's only intermediate sprint, finishing third to Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida).
"I just was keen to go for it today," Van Avermaet said. "I'm not going for the green points jersey, really. Bora set a fierce pace on the cobbles, and I was just well positioned. My team suddenly started to pull along, too, and I figured to sprint along."
As for the bunch-sprint conclusion to the stage back in Brussels, however, Van Avermaet felt that he'd started too far back in the peloton to be competitive.
"The speed was high, but, if I'd been better positioned, then I might have been much closer," he said after taking a nevertheless impressive 11th place.
"I think the mountains jersey looks nice, but I'm not going to defend it," admitted Van Avermaet. "The next goal is to win a stage."
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