Remember Greg Van Avermaet, the nearly man? The memories are fading fast. Nowadays everything the BMC rider touches turns to gold, like the strip on the sleeve of his jersey, and Sunday's victory at Gent-Wevelgem – completing an unprecedented triple after Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier in the year and E3 Harelbeke earlier in the week – was the latest triumph for a man who is quickly making up for lost time.
Before 2016, Van Avermaet had only one major one-day victory – Paris-Tours – to show for his nine years as a professional. 13 months later he has Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (x2), E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, GP de Montreal and Olympic gold all tucked into his palmares.
"I nearly can't believe it myself. It's a dream for me to win these three races. I've been trying for so long to get on the podium and now I'm winning all three of them. For me, it's a dream. After the finish I had to pinch myself to check if it was true," said the 31-year-old in Wevelgem.
"If you told me this morning that I would win Gent-Wevelgem then I would've told you something's just not right," he added, laughing. "It's just a dream for me, winning such hard races. Now it's all working out."
Now it's all working out. But how has this extraordinary transformation come about? The turning point seemed to be the Tour de France stage victory in 2015, when he got the better of Peter Sagan in a one-on-one battle in Rodez. He had an opportunity and, whereas in previous situations he’d have contrived to let it slip through his fingers, he grasped it, and hasn't looked back since.
"Things are just going my way," he added, though he did insist it's not all some intangible, possibly psychological, knack he's finally struck upon.
"I feel like I'm stronger, like I've got something extra for the finale. On the Kemmelberg it was clear that I was a level above the others. In the finale, that might have been the difference between being in the move or not. I'm simply somewhat stronger, somewhat fresher."
Transformed from a few years ago, Van Avermaet now oozes confidence. That much is clear in the manner of his racing – making all the right moves at the key moments and doing all the right things in the sprints – but also the manner of his race-winning press conferences. Asked if he now considered himself the favourite for the Tour of Flanders next Sunday, he didn’t shy away.
"I don't think I can say anymore that I'm not the favourite," was the response. "Things couldn't have gone any better so far; everybody wants to ride the build-up that I've ridden. I'm starting with a bag full of confidence.
"It's actually fun because the race that suits me best is still to come. Flanders is the one where it's been the easiest for me to get the best results, compared with E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, where I was never in the mix."
That said, Van Avermaet, who has twice finished on the podium of de Ronde, and once more in the top four, insisted he wouldn't let the confidence spill over into complacency.
"Once you start to think you've won, then you start to lose," he added. You always need to remain modest and try to improve every time.
"I'm starting [Flanders] with a lot of confidence but certainly not with the attitude that it can't go wrong. I need to keep doing what I'm doing. The only thing I hope is that I don't have any accidents. That's my only fear."
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