CCC Team's Greg Van Avermaet was first across the virtual Tour of Flanders finish line in Oudenaarde on Sunday, winning the 'lockdown edition' of the Tour of Flanders – a 34-kilometre online simulation E-sports race on static trainers. However the 34-year-old Belgian fears the coronavirus pandemic could rob him of one of his last chances to win the real thing.
Van Avermaet did not hide his distaste for riding indoors but wanted to provide some entertainment for fans and also represent his sponsors at a time when his team are cutting salaries and staff.
"It's something nice to do in these hard times – it’s good for the sponsors and for cycling in general," he said. "It’s not the real Flanders but at least it's some entertainment."
Indeed, a huge chunk of Belgium tuned in, with 613,000 watching on television station Sporza, and many more around the world streaming it online.
"It’s crazy. In Belgium, everyone was watching, I think. That’s quite special. My girlfriend was saying a lot of people were outside my house cheering," Van Avermaet said.
"I don’t want to make too much of a victory out of this. It’s nice entertainment but hopefully we’re back on the roads soon."
Van Avermaet has a rich spring palmares – with victories at Paris-Roubaix, E3, Gent-Wevelgem, and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – but the Tour of Flanders, the race closest to his heart, has so far eluded him.
With all racing on hold until at least June, the Spring Classics are gone, and Van Avermaet can only hope that the Tour of Flanders – where he has finished on the podium three times and in the top-10 a further four times – is postponed rather than cancelled altogether.
As he prepares to turn 35 next month, he’s keenly aware of the passing of time.
"As an old guy, I don’t have many chances anymore to probably win Flanders. If you lose another chance at this time, it’s not perfect for your sporting career," he told reporters in a video call.
It’s a similar story with the Olympic Games, which have been pushed back to summer 2021. Van Avermaet may get another year as the de factor Olympic champion, but he’d rather have the chance to claim an unprecedented double this year.
"I’m disappointed, for sure. I’m getting older and it’s not perfect for it to be next year. I was confident I could still do something with the course and everything. I hope to have still the came shape but you never know… I’m getting older.
"When you don’t have these things you see you shouldn’t take everything for granted, and that’s a good lesson we can learn from this crisis. We have to enjoy it even more, because a career is short and, with the years we have, we have to go for it full gas. That’s something we have to take from this."
Van Avermaet is fortunate that he can still train outdoors in Belgium but it's currently unknown when racing will be able to resume and how much of the season can be salvaged.
The UCI has halted racing until June and, for now at least, the Tour de France is still scheduled to go ahead on June 27, but there are widespread doubts that will actually happen if it cannot be postponed to later in the summer.
Cycling federations have already agreed to extend the season and the best hope would seem to be to hold a number of key races deep into the autumn.
"I’m hoping for the Tour de France – if it’s possible, of course – because that would be a big thing," Van Avermaet said.
"If they cancel the Tour, it’d be hard for us to have a good season and have sponsors behind us."
Van Avermaet claimed the UCI has a "big role" to play in determining when the season should resume, arguing it should only happen when there's a level playing field in terms of the coronavirus restrictions in place in different countries. "In that respect, it should be all or nothing," he said.
When it does resume, he said it's also up to the UCI how to fit so many races into such a short period of time. Some races have already confirmed their total cancellation this year but the Giro d'Italia, and Spring Classics all need to find space.
"It would be great to have the Monuments at the end of the year, if it’s possible, so there are no empty spaces in the palmarès. The Grand Tours are another big thing. That’s nine weeks of racing, and you still have to have space in between. It’s not going to be easy.
"We’re willing to race longer, that’s for sure, because we want to have the feedback from the sponsors and regain as much of the lost publicity as possible."
As for the prospect of racing the Classics in the autumn: "I cannot imagine it but I think we have to, because it would still be great to be able to put it on the calendar.
"With the weather conditions, that changes things maybe a bit, but a rainy day can also be there. Condition-wise you’d have a difference because you’d – hopefully – have a Grand Tour in the legs. After Grand Tour, some guys are in good shape and some struggle to recover from it.
"It would just be great to have another edition of Roubaix, Flanders, Milan-San Remo, otherwise it’s a lost year for the Classics riders. We don’t have that many chances in the cycling calendar, so if this disappears, it would be really bad news for us."
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