You keep knocking at the door, and eventually it will open — at least that’s what Greg Van Avermaet is banking on for 2016.
The Belgian star doesn’t want to be remembered for the races he didn’t win, and he’s optimistic 2016 is the year he finally breaks into the winner’s bracket in the northern classics. It’s not for a lack of trying.
“I feel I have it in me to win the big races,” Van Avermaet said at a recent BMC Racing team camp. “I’ve proved it. There are small differences between winning and losing. You only have four or five chances of winning a year. It’s also a little bit of luck.”
Classics riders compete with a mix of what’s a blessing and a curse. Riders like Van Avermaet are strong enough to match the grueling, six-hour, 230km-plus demands of a monument, but they know they only get three or four chances in an entire year to make their mark. And with the likes of Tom Boonen of Etixx – Quick-Step and Fabian Cancellara of Trek – Segafredo eating up podiums for the better part of the past decade, Van Avermaet’s been chipping away patiently at the fringes.
The past two seasons have confirmed his pedigree. Second in the 2014 Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and third last year in both the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix proved to his team and everyone else that he’s capable of winning a big one. Van Avermaet believes it’s a matter of time.
“Before, I said there were things I could improve,” he continued. “Now I am strong enough to win any classic. I just haven’t done it yet. I was pretty happy with my year , but you want to win. For a classics rider, without a big win, it’s not 100 percent.”
Van Avermaet, who is making his season debut this week at the Tour of Qatar, did manage to win a stage at the Tour de France last summer — stage 13 in a ripping battle against Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan into Rodez — to achieve another elusive goal.
Van Avermaet knows luck cuts both ways. A late-race puncture cost him a chance to challenge at Paris-Tours, and a motorcycle knocked him off his bike when he was attacking at the decisive final climb at Clásica San Sebastián.
For 2016, BMC is going all-in with Van Avermaet in the northern classics. Already two years ago, the team backed him over the cobblestones. With Taylor Phinney still working his comeback, and Philippe Gilbert keeping his eye on the Ardennes, Van Avermaet is the team’s go-to rider on the cobblestones.
“We believe Greg can win one of the big classics, and we’re supporting him,” BMC general manager Jim Ochowicz said. “It’s not easy. In the classics, you only have a week or two to win all year. I think he’s missing a bit of luck.”
Van Avermaet was cleared of doping allegations last year, and clearing that off his plate only opens the road for a solid 2016 season.
BMC brings a solid squad to the northern classics to support Van Avermaet. Perhaps it’s not one of the top teams like Etixx, but it’s very close. Behind Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt, Daniel Oss, Michael Schar, and Manuel Quinziato provide solid support, each capable of playing the wildcard if there’s an opening.
“I think we’re just as good as Etixx and the other teams,” Van Avermaet said. “We have a really strong team, and we’ve been together a few years already. That gives me more confidence as a leader.”
Now 30, Van Avermaet certainly isn’t afraid to make his own luck. His long-distance attack in the 2014 Ronde nearly paid off. Quick Step’s Stijn Vandenbergh marked him but the team told him not to collaborate, allowing others to link back up. Van Avermaet still had the form to ride to second, his first major podium in the northern classics. Last year, he rode with confident consistency and placed third in both the Ronde and Roubaix.
With longtime rivals Boonen and Cancellara both riding into the tail end of their careers, Van Avermaet believes he’s just the rider to fill that void.
“Tom is so special for Belgian cycling, and leaves a big space. I cannot compare myself to him, but I can try to fill that space,” Van Avermaet said. “Tom and Fabian were always the big riders of reference. Now we are more equal, with [Alexander] Kristoff, Sagan, and others, but I always try to do my own race. I don’t look too much at others.”