Looking back on the season just gone, Greg Van Avermaet reckons it was his finest to date. He also insists it wasn’t good enough.
The Belgian once again oozed consistency over the spring, finishing third at both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, before taking a maiden Tour de France stage victory in which he got the better of Peter Sagan.
“For me it was the best season so far,” Van Avermaet tells Cyclingnews and other media at BMC’s winter camp in Denia, Spain. “Last year was already really good – I was good in every race – and this year I stepped a little bit up again. In every race that suited me I was there and performing well.”
A big Spring Classics scalp continues to elude the 30-year-old, however, and while he has cemented his status as a perennial threat, he has also made a name for himself as something of a nearly man.
Van Avermaet has notched up 20 top-five placings in sizeable one-day races over the past five seasons, and has finished in the top 10 a further 15 times. At the Tour of Flanders, he has placed 4th, 2nd, and 3rd. At Paris-Roubaix, 4th and 3rd. He has clocked up second place finishes at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche to boot. It’s something he is desperate to correct.
“For me I have a lot of ambition and I will not be happy if I’m not winning Classics next year,” Van Avermaet says.
“Because you’re an athlete you want to have big wins, and for the moment it’s not happening. I’m pretty happy with my year, but you always want to go for the best. And for a Classics rider like me to finish a year without a Classics win is not 100 per cent.”
So why hasn’t Van Avermaet taken out a big one in the spring yet?
“A little bit of luck, I think,” is his response, though it is not long before ill fortune comes to be perceived as general inadequacy. New teammate Richie Porte is a case in point; his relative scarcity of big Grand Tour results can be attributed to a spot of bad luck here or there, an illness, an off day, an obscure sub-section in the rule book, but he has been branded as someone who is more generally incapable of putting it all together.
“I feel that I have it totally in me, that I’m strong enough to win big races,” Van Avermaet affirms.
“I’ve proved that, but in the big Classics there’s always something that doesn’t go well. You don’t have too many chances – only like four or five in a year – so I think it’s just a bit of luck.
“I think I’m there where I need to be. The other years I could say ‘I have to improve on this or that,’ but this year I stepped up a little bit more and showed I am strong enough to win Classics, I just haven’t done it yet. That’s now the goal.”
Highs and lows
Van Avermaet is famed for his consistency, but he did veer from peak to trough emotionally over the course of the 2015 season. The high of winning the Tour de France stage came after one of the darker periods of his career, which saw his name come up in an investigation into Belgian doctor Chris Mertens. Van Avermaet was accused of using cortisone and the children’s medicine Vaminolact, though he was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing.
“My high point for sure was the Tour de France stage,” he says, looking back on his season. “For me it was a big fight to win a stage in the Tour, I was close in the Classics with three times on the podium, so winning the Tour was probably the best.
“The year before I was close in Sheffield, close to the yellow jersey, and this year was kind of the same, I was third on GC, and just couldn’t make it for yellow, then I tried to win a stage. For sure it was my highlight.”
If the Tour was the highlight then the doping case that threatened to derail his spring campaign was the nadir, though his confidence in his innocence enabled him to come through it.
“It was pretty hard because I never expected to be in this kind of storm. I was cool because I knew I didn’t do anything wrong but it was hard because you have to get over it and start racing – they announced it just before the Classics.
“It wasn’t easy but I proved I was going well, actually my best spring ever. You have to be confident in yourself. I had nothing to hide and that helped me, [knowing that] the truth will come out.”
Van Avermaet on his fellow Classics stars
As Classics stalwarts Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara head for their final seasons, the spring is taking on a new complexion, with new stars stepping up to the plate. Van Avermaet identifies Peter Sagan, Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, and Niki Terpstra as possessors of the wheels that will have to be watched most attentively.
“I make my own attacks and try to ride my own race,” says the Belgian, but here he gives his take on Boonen, Sagan, and also Alejandro Valverde, who will make his Flanders debut next spring.
On Tom Boonen:
“I have a pretty close relationship with Boonen, he’s a Belgian guy, I’ve always ridden with him in the national team. He was already at the top level when I turned professional so he’s someone I’ll always look up to.
“You still feel when you’re racing with him, like in Richmond, that he has something special about him. He means so much to Belgian cycling. If he leaves, he leaves a space open. I cannot compare myself with him, I don’t have the palmares, but it’s really nice that I can be part of his career and try and fill up his space.”
On Peter Sagan:
“I think he’ll step up. He’s a very strong rider on every parcours, he’s a good bike handler, and he’s so hard to beat, because he sprints really fast. For me he’s one of the guys who’ll be there at the top level for a long time.
“If you see my victory in the Tour it’s a nice photo to see Sagan in second place, especially because he’s now world champion. It’s always nice to beat those guys, to be better than him in a finish that suits him.”
On Alejandro Valverde:
“Valverde is hors-catégorie. If he focuses on something he can be up there and he has a chance to win. It will be hard because we are specialists on the cobbles, but no doubt he’ll be there in the final, I think he’ll be top 10 for sure.
“His main disadvantage will be that he won’t know the parcours in Flanders, but his capabilities are really good. He climbs a little better than me but I’m a bit better on shorter climbs. He’s the kind of rider that if you see his characteristics, you can put Flanders also on his list and he’ll be there. He will ride the final, because he is the best rider in the world at the moment.”