After a 2017 Classics season in which Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) was virtually unstoppable, the scenario of a direct repeat this year was always going to be difficult. Almost on cue, the first minor setbacks – not repeating his win in Omloop and a disappointing showing in Strade Bianche – have been met with doubts and question marks over his form and credentials.
But while the Belgian press have wondered 'what's happened to golden Greg?' the man himself has been unwaveringly confident – net not even a shade cocky – in his own abilities.
"It's hard to match last season. I said that at the beginning of this season," he told Cyclingnews at Tirreno-Adriatico. "I was pretty impressive last year, and I was first or second in all the kind of races I went for. Even with the same legs it would be hard because of luck. We'll see how far I can come this year. I'm not expecting the same run, but I hope to have one or two big results. If you win one big one then it's enough."
Last season saw Van Avermeat cement his place as a Classics leader and winner. He claimed Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix, with a second place at the Tour of Flanders thrown in for good measure.
Philippe Gilbert played his role, of course, but few could argue that Van Avermaet was the man of the spring. This time around, Van Avermaet had had to deal with new factors and challenges. Illness has played a part, while the weather and different race circumstances must also be considered.
"I was disappointed with Strade Bianche. I was expecting more, but I didn't have good legs and didn't perform like I wanted to," he said of his 34th place.
"It was a strange day and special conditions, and my belly just didn't react after a week in the cold in Belgium. I think now I'm on a good level again, and I'm hoping to have a good Tirreno. Then it starts again, from Milan-San Remo all the way to Amstel. I want to be at a high level and hopefully do like what I did last year.
"The opening weekend was hard, but I was also not good enough to make the damage," Van Avermaet said. "I was there, but if you're not strong enough then it's hard to make the difference. I was a big favourite, defending champion, won the stage in Oman and some big guys weren't there, and it was hard to move, but after the Bosberg I wasn't really able to contest for the win.
"Kuurne is totally different, but I was happy with that and then Strade Bianche it went a bit wrong. The shape is there, but the problem was maybe coming back from the Middle East to the cold of Europe. Last year I was maybe luckier because the weather was maybe a bit better."
At Tirreno-Adriatico, the BMC Racing leader will have a great chance to monitor his form on stage 3. The parcours is 239km and is seen as the 'Milan-San Remo' stage.
"I'm feeling pretty good, and the stage should be good opportunity to see how far I've come," he said. "It's going to be a hard stage and I need to finish. I know it's really steep and sometimes more for climbers and lightweight guys, but it's good to test the legs on a stage like that."
Despite question marks over his form – in comparison to 2017 at least – Van Avermaet remains unflustered. Last season not only saw him dominate the spring, but it also allowed him breathing space. Few expected him to repeat his feats from 12 months ago, but the Belgian knows that if he can hit even some of the high notes from 2017, he will at the very least come close to rediscovering 'Golden Greg'.
"We're human, and it's not that easy to turn on a switch and win races," he said. "The shape is there and I did the hard work this winter. I'm really confident that it's there and the results will come. I just need to be a bit patient, and we'll see how far I can go."
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