Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) has an unblemished attendance record. Now in his 13th season as a professional, the Belgian will make his 13th consecutive appearance in the Tour of Flanders. Few riders will set out from Antwerp on Sunday morning with a greater depth of experience in the Ronde and nobody else has placed as consistently since the finish moved to Oudenaarde seven years ago.
Even before the landscape of the Ronde changed under the aegis of Flanders Classics, Van Avermaet showed his aptitude for the race, placing 8th in Meerbeke in 2008 despite riding in support of Leif Hoste. At 23 years of age, and with so much distance left to run, he must have assumed his time would eventually come. Chances have fallen his way over the years – Van Avermaet placed second in 2014 and 2017, and has been in the top 10 seven times in total – but the win of wins has always eluded him.
“From 2014 to now, I think I was really able to win Flanders. I’ve been a few times on the podium, a few times had bad luck also, but I still feel ready to win Flanders and hopefully it’s indeed lucky thirteen,” Van Avermaet told reporters in Oostkamp on Friday morning.
Van Avermaet’s palmarès includes an Olympic title and Paris-Roubaix, but thoughts of the Ronde are what sustain him through the damp, drizzly off-season, when the flatlands around Zogge seem perpetually cloaked in low, grey cloud, and spring is but a distant prospect. He suggested, however, that finally harpooning the white whale was an objective rather than an obsession.
“After you turn professional, you want to reach some other goals. For me it was winning Flanders because when I was 23 years old, I finished 8th, and for sure you then think you can win it,” Van Avermaet said. “Now I’m 33 and I still haven’t won it. I’ve been close a few times close and had a few opportunities, but it didn’t happen.
“It will not change my life, but you have to have goals in life, and for me it’s a big goal to win Flanders. I’m super motivated to win it once. It’s still not too late, and I think I have a few years, but I’d rather win it on Sunday than afterwards.”
Two years ago, in the aftermath of his Olympic title in Rio, Van Avermaet was the outstanding rider of the spring, racking up victories at Paris-Roubaix, Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The one disappointment in an otherwise perfect spring came at the Ronde, where he placed second despite coming down in a crash on the final time up the Kwaremont.
Van Avermaet struggled to hit those same high notes last spring, but he has run through the scales rather more smoothly this season. The 33-year-old placed second at both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and third at the E3 BinckBank Classic, and on each occasion, his forcing helped to provoke the decisive split, even if the numerical strength of Deceuninck-QuickStep counted against him.
“Races like E3 and Omloop are closest in style to the Tour of Flanders, which gives me confidence that I can do this in Flanders, which is a longer race and even better for me,” said Van Avermaet.
When BMC morphed into CCC during the off-season, the team’s focus shifted decisively from the Grand Tours to the cobbled Classics, with Guillaume Van Keirsbulck and Lukasz Wiśniowski among the new arrivals, but that change in emphasis has not manifested itself on the road. Thus far, Van Avermaet has been bereft of teammates in the finale of major races.
“I think Flanders is the race that suits us best because we have a longer warm-up than the other races,” Van Avermaet said. “The team is strong enough to support me on the crucial points and in the final, I think it’s more man to man than the other races.”
Even so, the mighty Deceuninck-QuickStep will expect to have more than one option in the closing stages, and Van Avermaet named two of their number – Bob Jungels and Zdenek Stybar – among the top favourites for the Ronde, together with Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
“Van Aert didn’t win yet but you can see he has a little bit of an advantage on the others. I think behind those three you have a big group on the same level a little bit,” said Van Avermaet. He placed himself in that second tier alongside men like Mathieu van der Poel – “He still has – hopefully – some things to learn,” Van Avermaet smiled – and Peter Sagan, who has appeared relatively subdued to this point.
“In the years before, Sagan was always dominating the races, always the decisive guy to do the moves. This year he’s not able to do this,” Van Avermaet said. “It’s a bit strange for me that he’s not on this level yet. But with him you never know. Sometimes the step to the top level is small with him. I don’t mention him as top favourite but he’s still there and still capable of winning on Sunday.”
For his part, Van Avermaet knows that he will eventually run out of chances to win the Ronde. That brings its own pressure, but such is the arid reality of top-level sport. He wouldn’t have it any other way. “If you don’t get nervous about this race anymore, you have to stop, I think,” Van Avermaet said. “For sure you can be nervous for the race, but it cannot kill you. A bit of healthy stress is good.”