Greg Van Avermaet's transition from nearly man to world class has been completed with his first Monument victory at Paris-Roubaix. A changed rider in just a few short seasons, Van Avermaet has gone from hoping for a solid result to entering the Roubaix velodrome with a cement-hardened belief that he would be first across the line.
For a time it seemed as though Van Avermaet was destined, like Raymond Poulidor at the Tour de France, to become synonymous with missing out on the wins he coveted the most. That has all changed, and at times the BMC man has appeared unstoppable this spring, with a string of top results culminating in his first Monument victory ahead of Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step) and Sebastian Langeveld (Cannondale-Drapac).
"I think that I did everything well and I still had the power to beat Stybar. I'm really happy. For me, the Olympics will always be my biggest victory, but it is good to also have a Monument, otherwise, you keep asking when I'm going to win a Monument," Van Avermaet told the press after his victory. "I was really confident about my sprint because several times I've done a sprint from a small group and at the end of a race I was always one of the fastest guys. I came into the track with the thought that I'm going to win this race. I think that's always a good start.
"Before I would come to Roubaix on the track and try to do a good result, but now I come to the velodrome and think, now I'm going to win. This small change of mindset makes a difference to the end result."
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Confidence aside, Van Avermaet must have thought that it was all about to come down around him again at Paris-Roubaix. A week after losing out on an opportunity to contest victory at the Tour of Flanders when he got caught up in a crash with Peter Sagan, lady luck appeared to be against him again when a near crash and then a mechanical problem saw him lose 40 seconds ahead of the Trouée de Arenberg.
A panicked Van Avermaet strode down the cobbles towards his team car, screaming into his team radio while dragging the now useless bike along with him.
"It was my derailleur. On the corner before, someone hit my derailleur from behind, and it wasn't working any more so I tried to reset it before the cobbles, but if you reset it then it goes from left to right and then it went into my wheel," he explained.
The incident couldn't have happened at a worse time, with the Arenberg just a few short kilometres away. It would be over 20 kilometres before Van Avermaet saw the group of contenders again, a chase that burned quite a bit of energy, despite the help his teammates provided, with Daniel Oss and Jempy Drucker in particular doing yeoman's work. Van Avermaet maintained hope that he could bridge the gap to the group ahead.
"Probably, if you say it is the moment when you want to be in front it is that moment, so it wasn't easy to come back," said Van Avermaet. "It was a team effort at this moment because I always had guys with me that wanted to ride. I think also Jempy waited to come back and bring me up. I lost a lot of energy because there were times when I had to do it myself, and it was not great, but I still believed that I could make it. There was still a long way to go, and I thought that if I could come back to the front then I could recover a bit and the race was open again.
"Daniel did a really strong race to help me position myself for the Carrefour. Sometimes at the Classics, it's hard to help the real leader because if the final starts too early then a lot of the time you can't. But I think that today the team did everything that they could and they made a big difference in bringing me back."
Once back in the group, an attack from Oss gave Van Avermaet an opportunity to sit on as best he could. The Italian also put in a huge pull on the front when he was reeled back, setting Van Avermaet up for the attacks when they came in the final 30 kilometres.
With his first Monument under his belt, Van Avermaet is already thinking about the one that he really wants. "It maybe wasn't the race that I expected to win, but I did so I'm really happy that I have Roubaix and next year I will try for Flanders," he said.
Van Avermaet will be racing again at next Sunday's Amstel Gold Race, where he's got his eyes set on another top result. "It's a race I like also, and it's one of the races where I always like to go, and I have the feeling that I can go and do something there. I will try to enjoy the moment. Amstel will be on my programme and tomorrow I will think about it, but tonight I will have a bit of a party."
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