Holy Week in Belgium, and everybody, it seems, has an opinion on Greg Van Avermaet. Some are more trenchant than others. Eddy Planckaert, 1988 Ronde winner turned television pundit, has already seen enough. "Van Avermaet isn't right. You can see it," Planckaert told Het Laatste Nieuws earlier this week. "If he wins the Tour of Flanders, I'll admit I'm wrong – but I don't think so."
Van Avermaet's showing at a sodden Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday was in keeping with the tenor of his Classics campaign to date: full of whole-hearted endeavour, but without the kind of incision that marked his remarkable winning run of a year ago, when he collected victories at Paris-Roubaix, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
When the Olympic champion joined Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) in a spirited two-up attack on the Knokteberg with 35 kilometres remaining, it briefly looked as though they might go the distance, but they were pegged back on the cobbles at Varent shortly afterwards.
Almost as soon as they were caught, the winning break of five ghosted off the front, powered by Sep Vanmarcke (EF-Drapac). Van Avermaet hesitated before trying to close the gap and the moment was gone. Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step) won the day, while Van Avermaet was left to compete for scraps in a group policed by Lampaert's teammates, ultimately placing 8th in Waregem, 59 seconds down. Traffic lights that were always green twelve months ago now keep turning to red.
"It was a good race but not such a good result. I think with these legs, I could have been sprinting for first, for sure, but that's how the situation sometimes goes," Van Avermaet said on the steps of the BMC Racing Team bus afterwards.
"Tiesj and I were caught on the Varent, and we hesitated a bit because we had done a big effort before. We looked a bit to the other favourites when Vanmarcke attacked, and Tiesj and me got a bit stuck behind. It was hard to catch up again."
Not for the first time this Spring, Quick-Step's strength in depth proved pivotal, with Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar controlling the chasing group as Lampaert et al forged clear. Patrick Lefevere's squad have now won seven of the last eight races on Belgian roads, and it seems that every breakaway attempt without a blue jersey on board is all but doomed to failure.
"If someone from Quick-Step was there with us when Tiesj and I went, then that move would have stayed away," Van Avermaet said. "Without a Quick-Step rider, it was different."
"I think I'm there for Sunday"
With just a stage win at the Tour of Oman and a third-place finish at E3 Harelbeke to show for his efforts to this point, Van Avermaet's results in 2018 have failed to live up to his winning run of a year ago. He insists, however, that his condition ahead of the Tour of Flanders is at more or less the same level. (Planckaert, incidentally, is sceptical: "When you say yourself that you're good, you're always a bit less good than you say.")
"I'm pretty happy with my form. It feels pretty good," Van Avermaet reiterated on Wednesday. "Every week, it's a little bit better. I think I'm there for Sunday."
Van Avermaet and BMC's tactical approach has also come under considerable scrutiny in the Flemish press this week, but directeur sportif Fabio Baldato declared himself pleased with his leader's approach at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. Given the treacherous conditions, he reasoned that the best way to avoid harm was to go on the offensive.
"He was right to go on the attack, and it was also a good way not to take any risks: with the rain, wind and cobbles, the best place to be was on the front," Baldato told Cyclingnews. "When Greg was off the front, the chase was well organised behind him. Then when he was behind, everybody was lined up on his wheel. Quick-Step had three riders in that group and they managed it well."
With the exception of E3 Harelbeke on Friday, Van Avermaet has cut an isolated figure in the finale of major races so far this Spring. The signing of Jürgen Roelandts has not, as yet, offset the loss of Daniel Oss to Bora-Hansgrohe and Manuel Quinziato to retirement, while Quick-Step's numerical advantage is obvious.
"The condition is there, the legs are good. Obviously, he's feeling the pressure a bit but we believe in him," Baldato said. "We just need to do better as a team to support him, we need to have more riders at the front with him. Today, we had one or two riders close to him, but in the finale, unfortunately, he was left by himself. We need to be better."
At 266 kilometres in length, of course, the Tour of Flanders offers a different kind of a test to any other on the Flemish calendar. In the rarefied atmosphere of that final hour or so of racing on Sunday afternoon, nothing that has gone before will seem to matter. It will all come down to Van Avermaet himself in the race he covets above all others.
"Sunday should be easier to manage because there are fewer riders with a chance to win," Van Avermaet said. "It's the race that suits me the best. I'm looking forward to maybe everything going right on Sunday."
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