Worlds: Van Avermaet's golden year could continue in Doha
'I never said I had no chance at these Worlds'
Nigh on fifteen minutes of Belgium's final pre-World Championships press conference had passed on Thursday evening when journalists were politely reminded that Tom Boonen was not the only rider seated at the top table.
Such is the gravitational pull of Planet Tommeke that even an Olympic gold medallist, barely two months removed from his winning ride, can be utterly eclipsed on an occasion such as this. Greg Van Avermaet probably preferred it that way and he sat quietly alongside women's leader Jolien d'Hoore as Boonen fielded question after question about his chances, his form and the expected problems of the wind and heat.
With Boonen set to retire after next year's Paris-Roubaix, Sunday will mark his final World Championships and, given his success at the Tour of Qatar in years past and his form in recent weeks, he has a very viable opportunity to win a second rainbow jersey, eleven years on from his triumph in Madrid.
Van Avermaet will line up as a co-leader alongside Boonen. Given the potential for the race to split to pieces long before the arrival of the finishing circuit in Doha, such an insurance policy is decent investment and, his crash at the Tour of Flanders aside, Van Avermaet has been money in the bank all season long, on a variety of terrains.
"I never said I had no chance at these Worlds, but I did say it was not the perfect course for me," Van Avermaet said. "I've been here to Qatar a few times and with the echelons, it's perfect for Classics riders. For sure I have a chance, but I couldn't say I was a big favourite for this one."
A long season
By any metric, Van Avermaet has been one of the outstanding performers of 2016, even if it was telling that one of his first thoughts was for his Ronde crash. He had already won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno-Adriatico before that disappointment, and then recovered to claim a stage win and a stint in yellow at the Tour de France ahead of his dramatic victory in Rio de Janeiro and the GP de Montréal.
In short, the man who couldn't win big races has now seemingly forgotten how to lose. Boonen may have the greater aptitude for Sunday's course, but, like Stephen Roche in Villach in 1987, Van Avermaet's remarkable run might continue even on terrain less suited to his talents.
"It's been a hard season. There was the crash in Flanders, but I took some nice victories. Rio took a lot of energy away from me, which is normal I think, so I don't feel that fresh anymore. But the biggest goals of the season for me were the Classics and Rio," Van Avermaet said.
"I'll see if I have some freshness on Sunday and see how my legs respond. I also feel like I'm not on top shape but I'm there in every race still. So we'll see on Sunday. I think I have a chance to be up there in the final and maybe even win the race."
The final hierarchy
Boonen and Van Avermaet agreed that the final hierarchy of the Belgian team can only be established once the race reaches the finishing circuit on the Pearl and both men have had the chance to assess the impact of those opening 150 kilometres in the desert.
"If Tom and I are in the first group on the Pearl, we should talk together and just be honest," Van Avermaet said. "It's hard to say right now, because I think the heat and wind will be the hardest factors, and it will be hard for everybody."
Logic suggests that Boonen is the more likely to shine on a finale such as this, but Rio de Janeiro, albeit on very different terrain, was ample proof of Van Avermaet's ability to think on his feet once the initial logic of a championship race has broken down. And, like Boonen, he has some previous in this postage stamp of soil in the Middle East, having claimed his maiden professional win at Mesaieed during the 2007 Tour of Qatar.
"It was a beautiful day, eh. It was my first year as a pro, my first race actually, so winning that stage opened up the world to me as a professional rider," Van Avermaet said. "Every neo-pro wants to start the year well, and that was a big step for me."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.