Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) has known more heartbreak than happiness over the years at the Tour of Flanders, but his demeanour as he stood on Oudenaarde's main square on Sunday afternoon suggested that this fifth place finish here will not sting quite like other Ronde disappointments past.
In 2014, Van Avermaet looked to have ridden a tactically perfect race only to be overpowered by Fabian Cancellara in a four-up sprint. A year ago, the Belgian was arguably the strongest man in the race, but a crash near the top of the Oude Kwaremont meant that he was left to compete only for second place behind his old rival Philippe Gilbert.
This time around, there were no ifs, buts, or maybes: Quick-Step Floors' collective dominance and Niki Terpstra's startling individual strength brooked no argument. Van Avermaet's own display, meanwhile, was in keeping with the tone of his Classics campaign to date, as he applied some notable blunt force on the Taaienberg, but lacked the sharp edge of a year ago in the finale.
"I've been some years here with a very big disappointment because I had sometimes the feeling I could win," Van Avermaet said, his hood up against the chill. "Today I could do second or third maybe but not win, I think, so I'm pretty happy with how I raced and my form. In other years, like last year for example, I had the feeling I could win, and also a few years before. Today was a different edition I think. It was hard for me to win."
A year ago, Van Avermaet arrived at the first Sunday in April filled with expectation after winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. This time around, he set out from Antwerp burdened by pressure to land a result. An editorial in Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday morning even claimed that this year might effectively be his last chance to win the Ronde.
On a day of low temperatures and even lower cloud in the Flemish Ardennes, Quick-Step Floors, as anticipated, made much of the running, but Van Avermaet opted to play his hand on a climb beloved of the team's old leader, Tom Boonen. Van Avermaet surged to the front on the ascent of the Taaienberg with 38 kilometres left and strung out the group of favourites, but try as he might, he was unable to shake any of Quick-Step's blue jerseys loose.
"Greg tried to see if he could get to the finale with a couple Quick-Steps in that group instead of four of them," BMC directeur sportif Fabio Baldato told Cyclingnews. "That was the idea he had in mind, to do some forcing, but in the end, they always had the strength in numbers. The group was getting smaller but they were always there, so it became difficult to do anything any different."
On the next climb, the two-part pour of Kruisberg/Hotond, Terpstra launched his winning move, setting off in pursuit of Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and then setting off alone in pursuit of the earlier escapees near the summit. Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) et al watched one another behind and, all of a sudden, an effervescent Terpstra had a winning gap and teammates controlling the race behind. Nothing to be done.
"I wanted to do something. I think I was one of the stronger guys in the race but I think Terpstra was maybe just a little better than every one of us," Van Avermaet said. "He did the right move and it was pretty impressive to do this effort to the line. He didn't wait too long to make the race."
Baldato agreed with Van Avermaet's analysis. “Terpstra had the strength to drop Nibali, so I don't think we could have done much more," he said. "I'm happy with how the boys raced. We had Jurgen Roelandts on a good day, and he supported Greg until the final time up the Kwarmont."
Terpstra picked off the break on the Oude Kwaremont and reached the top with a lead of 40 seconds on the Van Avermaet group, a situation which remained effectively unchanged to the summit of the Paterberg. The group was too unwieldly to marshal into a cohesive pursuit on the run-in to Oudenaarde, where early escapee Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) held on for second and Gilbert jumped away for third. Van Avermaet beat Sagan in the sprint for 5th, 25 seconds down on Terpstra.
"You look at each other but nobody was really strong enough to go away and to make a gap," Van Avermaet said of the final lap over the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
Van Avermaet will, of course, have the chance to dream it up all over again next weekend at Paris-Roubaix, where he will set out from Compiegne as the defending champion. That win on the Roubaix velodrome remains his last victory at WorldTour level. The lie of the land is very different to that imperial phase of a year ago.
"Maybe I'm less of a favourite," Van Avermaet said softly. "Maybe that helps me to do something."
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