A year ago, when Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) scarcely misplaced a pedal stroke all spring, opportunities seemed to fall into his lap at every turn. Twelve months on, the Olympic champion can't quite seem to catch a break, no matter how he tries. Such are the glorious mysteries of the cobbled Classics.
The difference between his Gent-Wevelgem this year and last is a case in point. This Sunday twelve months ago, a running contretemps between Peter Sagan and Niki Terpstra allowed Van Avermaet to all but ghost of the front of the winning break in the company of Jens Keukeleire and claim victory in the two-up sprint on Vanackerstraat.
This time out, Van Avermaet looked to force a way clear of the front group a mile outside Wevelgem only to find his attempt quickly snuffed out, with Wout Van Aert (Veranda’s Willem-Crelan), Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors) and others dutifully lined up on his wheel. Caught between a rock and a hard place, he had little left for the sprint and had to settle for 14th behind winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
"To win was going to be hard and I hoped that some guys came with me. I hoped there would be some hesitation in the group and we'd get a small gap," Van Avermaet said outside the BMC bus afterwards. "But then, yeah, I think some guy closed it and it was hard to get back in position and hard to do a good sprint."
Dressed in a hoody and woollen hat to guard against the cold, Van Avermaet’s disappointment at how his afternoon had panned out was palpable. The tranquil weather conditions on Sunday were in contrast to the recent, windswept editions of Gent-Wevelgem, and made the task of eliminating the fast men all the more difficult for men like Van Avermaet.
BMC were prominent at the front on the dirt road of the plugstreets as the race entered the last 50 kilometres, but Van Avermaet had no teammates for company when the final selection of 23 riders formed following the second climb of the Kemmelberg. Van Avermaet acknowledged that his speculative attack had been an error, but cited the lack of a lead-out for the sprint as mitigation.
"We tried as best we could to make the race hard but I’m a bit disappointed I didn’t do better in the end of this race because I had super good legs. I was feeling really well, but I did some mistakes in the end, I think," Van Avermaet said.
"It would also be nice if I had some extra support in the sprint, but I had to find my own way. It was a big group and I’m not super good in a sprint with a big group, it’s nicer to have some guys to lead you out, but this didn’t happen. I wanted a little bit more from today result-wise."
Buoyed by his Olympic title, Gouden Greg, as he was dubbed by the Belgian press, seemed to enter an imperial phase last spring, collecting victories at Paris-Roubaix, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke, and he might well have added the Tour of Flanders, too, were in not for his crash near the summit of the Oude Kwaremont.
Repeating a sequence of results like that in 2018 was always unlikely, a fact Van Avermaet stressed at the beginning of the new campaign. The balance sheet is undeniably lighter this time around – his lone victory of the year came on stage 3 of the Tour of Oman in February and his best Classic result so far was third at E3 Harelbeke on Friday – but he was bullish about his relative condition.
"I think it’s similar [to last year], that's the thing," Van Avermaet said. "The results last year were super good and everything went perfect, especially here in Wevelgem, which is a hard race for me to win. But feeling-wise, I have the same feeling as last year, maybe even a little bit better. I’m happy with my form, I’m happy with my legs and I hope to make a result in the next races."
In truth, and much like last year, Van Avermaet's spring will be judged solely on what he achieves on the next two Sundays, at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. The Ronde, in particular, is the race Van Avermaet covets above all others, after his ill-starred second place last year and the heavier crash that ended his challenge altogether in 2016. One imagines he would gladly swap success in these early skirmishes for victory in Oudenaarde next weekend.
Before Flemish cycling's day of days, Van Avermaet will line out at Dwars door Vlaanderen, which was a new place on the calendar on the Wednesday before the Ronde, the day when he would traditionally have put in his final long training ride.
"I hope to keep safe, that's the most important," Van Avermaet said. "These races demand a lot from the head and you have to stay on the bike also. There are a lot of crashes these days. I hope to stay safe and to get to next Sunday with the same legs would be great."