All season long, it seems, Greg Van Avermaet is always up there. The Belgian may not have landed a Classic victory in 2018, but amid all the questions as to whether Gouden Greg's imperial phase had passed, his sheer consistency throughout the Spring was somewhat overlooked, as he knitted together top-five finishes at the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and E3 Harelbeke.
There was precious little respite thereafter, save for a couple of weeks of rest after overall victory at May's Tour de Yorkshire. At the Tour de France in July, Van Avermaet spent more than a week in the maillot jaune and came within inches of a stage win in Roubaix.
The two weekends after La Grande Boucle saw him take 4th at the Clasica San Sebastian and then ride the European Championships in Glasgow. That same night, he caught a plane to the Netherlands to report for duty for the BinckBank Tour. It has been, by any measure, a most exacting schedule.
"I tried to recover as good as possible in the days up to now. I did an OK time trial on Tuesday, I think, and that was the hardest stage because it was only two days after the European Championships," Van Avermaet told Cyclingnews in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw on Friday.
"I hope to do a good final weekend here, that's the thing. Hopefully, I can move up on GC and maybe win a stage. I think the parcours is not really super good for me, but I'll try as best as possible."
Van Avermaet enters the final two days of the BinckBank Tour in 24th place, some 58 seconds down on overall leader Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida). A repeat of his podium finish of 2015 seems unlikely, but Sunday's final stage over the Muur and Bosberg is tailored perfectly to his talents. "The last day is maybe the hardest one so I'll try to have a good day there," Van Avermaet said.
Sunday's grand finale will, in any case, be Van Avermaet's last competitive outing for three weeks. Directeur sportif Valerio Piva explained that his fatigue following the European Championships was such that he considered withdrawing from the BinckBank Tour earlier in the week. Rather than risk running on fumes, Van Avermaet will not race again until he flies to Canada next month for the WorldTour events in Montreal and Quebec.
"Greg is Greg: you often need to hold him back a bit to allow him to recover. His standard is always at 90 per cent at the very least, but these days, we know that you have to be 110 per cent to win at the highest level," Piva told Cyclingnews. "Sometimes it's better to ease back and recover. After the BinckBank Tour, he'll have a more relaxed period, so that he can focus fully on the races in Canada. He won't do Plouay or the races that were on his programme initially. I think the European Championships maybe pushed him a bit too far."
Van Avermaet has been a formidable performer on Canadian roads over the years, placing on the podium four times in Quebec and winning the GP Montreal in 2016, and the two races understandably form the centrepiece of the final part of his season. That said, Piva maintains that Van Avermaet cannot be ruled out of contention at the World Championships in Innsbruck, despite the severity of the course. The Belgian did, after all, win an Olympic gold medal on a similarly exacting course in Rio in 2016.
"On paper, they say it's a really hard Worlds designed for the climbers, but in Rio, they said it was a course for climbers too, and we all saw what he did there," Piva said. "In the end, it depends on how it's raced. He's not a favourite, so he won't be controlled as much, and whenever he races, he races to do well. It's not an ideal route for him, but I wouldn't rule him out from getting a good result."
Van Avermaet, as is his wont, is rather more circumspect about his prospects on a course that includes close to 5,000 metres of climbing, not to mention the vicious final ascent of Gramartboden.
"I think it's a bit too difficult, so my first goal is Quebec-Montreal," Van Avermaet. "Then, of course, I could go to the Worlds maybe not as a leader but in an open role, to see how far I can come. I think it suits climbers more than types like me."
At this year's Tour, as in 2016, Van Avermaet's climbing surprised, as he defended his yellow jersey by going on the offensive on the first day in the Alps. The Rio Olympics came just two weeks after the end of the Tour, and Van Avermaet brought those climbing legs with him to Brazil, but maintaining his July weight all the way through to Innsbruck in late September is a rather more onerous task.
"It's hard to carry that form through. I think the most important thing is keeping the weight off and that's hard for me," Van Avermaet said. "It's true that in a one-day race, I can climb well. On a stage race, it's always harder because after a few days in a row in the mountains, I start to lose some power. I can always do one day full-on and do better wattages than on a stage race. That's my big advantage. But even so, I still think that at the end of such a long race, it would be difficult to keep up with the climbers."
Van Avermaet will, however, expect to be in the mix for at least one gold medal in Austria. The Belgian has been included in the pre-selection for the team time trial event, which will feature trade teams for the last time in 2018. It will also mark a farewell of sorts to BMC, which ceases its backing of the team at the end of the year. Van Avermaet remains in situ at the revamped squad, sponsored by CCC, for 2019, but the occasion has the sense of an ending all the same.
"It's the last time for the team time trial," Van Avermaet said. "I never did it and for me, it's a big goal to give a last honour to this team. That's also why I wanted to go. Hopefully, we can finish with a win. We'll have a strong team there. It would be nice to sign off with that kind of result."
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