Van Avermaet: I'm ready for the Classics
CCC Team leader is exactly where he needs to be approaching Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Greg Van Avermaet's kit may have switched to the eye-catchingly bright orange of CCC in 2019, and the team's line-up has altered equally radically, but for the Belgian star, this year is all about business as usual.
The 2016 Olympic champion is eyeing a very similar race programme to 2018, and Van Avermaet told Cyclingnews that he is aiming to hit the ground running at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
"I'm exactly where I want to be. I didn't have big problems this winter with my training, and I feel really ready to start the season – ready to start the Classics," Van Avermaet said as he sat at the foot of the stairs of the CCC Team bus prior to the start of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana.
Van Avermaet said he hopes to get through his first two races of the season – Valenciana and the Tour of Oman – "without any problems, and then go from Het Nieuwsblad to Amstel Gold full-on, which is where it really counts".
After so long in the game, it almost goes without saying that the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is his first big objective, and when Van Avermaet ticks off the reasons why that is so, it is almost as if he's on autopilot: "It's a Belgian race, it's WorldTour, and I've won it twice already."
No further justification needed.
"Some guys are focusing towards Strade [Bianche], Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, but I'm a guy who's really regular all season long, so for me it starts at Nieuwsblad," he nevertheless added.
Van Avermaet was 28th, 30 seconds behind Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) in Valenciana's opening time trial – a result that he said was "quite good. This isn't my specialty but I went well".
He said that the main thing was to just get started, and he's happy that his 2019 campaign is now up and running: "It's been a super-long winter, and at the end I was just waiting to get the season going."
Van Avermaet's race schedule looks all but identical to 2018, although he'll miss Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne this year.
"It was a good programme in 2018 and in 2017, and for a Classics rider it's not so easy to change things. You do most of the Classics, the Tour de France and the Worlds, and for the next few years, it's probably going to be the same."
The Tour, though, will feel very different given it has a start in Brussels, on home soil.
"It's the first time for me that it's so close [to home], and that always makes me motivated," he said. "I had a great Tour last year, and sponsor-wise it's the biggest race of the year, so it's a huge goal."
Although there was a dearth of breakaway stages where he could shine, Van Avermaet's 2018 Tour "went pretty well and I survived a couple of climbs". Given how well he rode the stage to Le Grand Bornand, deep into the Alps, finishing fourth and unexpectedly holding onto the overall lead for an eighth day, it's something of an understatement.
But for Van Avermaet, 2019 is not exactly, as a certain New Wave band once sang, "same as it ever was". For one thing, the World Championships are marked with an even bigger X on his calendar than usual, he agrees, given the route of the Yorkshire course is one of the best for him in recent years – and the area holds good memories for him too.
Last year's Tour de Yorkshire could hardly have gone better for Van Avermaet, with his consistent placings netting him the overall win. And at 284.5 kilometres, this year's Worlds will be exceptionally long, too, which, he says, "is something that favours me".
Now 33, Van Avermaet is hardly too long in the tooth for a spell in the rainbow jersey – as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) would happily testify – but the Belgian does recognise that if he wants to win the Worlds, the number of opportunities is beginning to drop.
"It's maybe not my last chance, but I'm also getting older," Van Avermaet said, "so when a really good parcours comes up, I have to take advantage of it, and Yorkshire is one of them. I'll be very motivated to get a good result there."
He denied feeling any more pressure to produce the results given he is now, without a doubt, CCC's main man for a hefty chunk of the season after all the other best-known BMC leaders moved on.
"I have my own goals. I'm not going to change myself, and they don't have to expect me to do more than I did before," Van Avermaet said.
"But the other side of this is that there are more opportunities for the others" – his teammates – "to get in the break and develop themselves, whereas before [former BMC leaders] Rohan Dennis and Richie Porte were GC and TT specialists who always took the [leaders'] jerseys, so we had to defend them.
"It's nice, in a way. Maybe for the other guys this will be more of an opportunity to be free."
Van Avermaet concluded that CCC is a "totally different team".
"Before we were top three [in the UCI WorldTour teams ranking], and I think we've gone down now, but maybe next year we can step up again."
Rather than rankings or leaders, what is most important for cycling is that CCC have "stepped up," as Van Avermaet put it, with a much bigger investment in the sport than when they were backing their Pro Continental team of previous years.
And he himself will be back battling for the same objectives as ever, with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad now only three weeks away.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.