Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R-Citroën) made the Tour of Flanders podium for the fourth time in his career on Sunday - taking third behind Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quickstep) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix). Although he was "all smiles" after the race, the Belgian admits that after 14 attempts, finally winning his home Classic is not getting easier.
"It's a great podium for the team. I'm really happy to be on the podium again, after a few years, in the race I love so much," Van Avermaet said. "I'll try again but it's not getting easier."
He has been second in 2014 and third in 2015 and 2017 but, in stark contrast to previous editions, he had no regrets about the outcome of this year's race.
"I've been on the podium a few times with a sad face because I thought that more was possible. This year I was all smiles behind my mask. I got the maximum out of it and more than third place wasn't possible. I'm satisfied," Van Avermaet said.
The race took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic for the second time in six months after 2020's October edition and again without spectators and riders hidden behind facemasks before and after the race.
"It was weird on the climbs without the fans," Van Avermaet said. "The pace was quite hard from the Molenberg on. That was difficult but it helps me to get into the rhythm."
"The pace was high because the breakaway group had a lead of 12 minutes at some point. I had to race steady. I was good but I didn't have the legs to go with Mathieu [van der Poel], Wout [Van Aert] or [Julian] Alaphilippe so I had to do it at my own pace. There were certainly more than three riders stronger than me. With my experience and course knowledge, I knew I had to try and stay in the group. I had to trust that I could be strong on the last time up the Kwaremont and Paterberg, to go fast to the finish in Oudenaarde. If some of the others would bonk then my chances would increase and maybe a podium would be possible."
What Van Avermaet hoped for happened. Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) punctured just before the move from Asgreen on the Hotondberg, where only Van der Poel and Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) were able to mark the Dane.
Riders who impressed before the final climbs faded away on the final Oude Kwaremont ascent, like Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Marco Haller (Bahrain Victorious). Van Aert got dropped from the lead group on the Oude Kwaremont and, after the final climb of the day, the short and steep Paterberg climb, he was caught back by the chase group.
"It's not easy to win the sprint for third place in such a group. Actually, we were racing for fourth place because Wout was still in the lead group.
"Once Wout was caught back I tried to keep the group going in the hope that we could come back on Mathieu and Asgreen. Once I realised that it wouldn't happen I tried to attack at the right moment. I was at the back of the group when the pace dropped. I knew that when I attacked at that moment that it would surprise the others and get me in the position to ride for third place. With Jasper [Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) -ed] the cooperation was good and we rode à bloc until the finish line," Van Avermaet said.
In the two-man sprint for third place, Van Avermaet easily got the better of his younger compatriot. "A sprint after such a long and hard race is always unpredictable. It's about getting a good feeling in your legs and having something left. I still felt that I had something in my legs."
Much earlier, Van Avermaet's teammate Michael Schär was disqualified from the race for throwing away his bottle illegally. Fans were seen picking up the bottle but it is still considered to be against the new UCI rules.
"First I thought that he crashed but then I heard after the race that he threw away his bottle. The rules are very strict and the punishment is overkill. There are many fans in Belgium that want a bottle. As a kid, I was super happy with a rider's bottle. It's a trophy.
"The environment is obviously is important but the last few years riders are doing their utmost to keep it clean; especially the wrappers that we keep in our pockets. The bottles are surely being picked up here in Belgium," Van Avermaet said.
There were a few rules that were in force for the first time, also one banning the so-called tuck position. "I had to pay attention because at some moments I would normally sit on my frame. Early on I constantly thought about it because I was wearing thick gloves and was thinking 'if I drop it now my race might be over'. It wasn't simple. The waste zones are good. We were saving our waste until those zones. The UCI should look for another solution that is slightly less strict. We all have to avoid dumping our waste."
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