WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — Greg Van Avermaet, or “King Greg” as the Belgian newspaper headlines read Monday morning, is firing every warning shot possible heading toward the Tour Flanders on Sunday. He said he “feels stronger” and has “something extra” this 2017 season.
The Belgian Olympic champion of team BMC Racing won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last month, the E3 Harelbeke on Friday, and Gent-Wevelgem Sunday afternoon. After Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, those races are cycling’s biggest cobbled classics. And no one before Van Avermaet has ever won all three in one season.
“I feel like I’m stronger, like I’ve got something extra for the final,” he said Sunday evening in Wevelgem.
The 31-year-old pedaled his silver BMC bicycle to the pressroom in a nearby gymnasium. He had just accepted the winner’s flowers after storming away on the Kemmelberg with Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) chasing and sprinting ahead of Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott) next to the town’s main square. He climbed off his bike and spoke with the journalists. “King Greg” listened politely to every question and responded at length.
“On the Kemmelberg, it was clear that I was a level above the others,” he explained. “I’m simply somewhat stronger, somewhat fresher. It’s just going my way, too.”
He raced on a similar high in 2016 but crashed and fractured his collarbone in the Tour of Flanders. He redeemed himself in the Tour de France with a stage win and a yellow jersey ride, and later with the Olympic gold medal after winning the road race in Rio de Janeiro.
The 2017 season is off to an even better start. The Van Avermaet train is speeding toward Sunday’s Tour of Flanders at increasing momentum.
“Things couldn’t have gone any better. Everybody wants to ride the build-up [to Flanders] that I’ve ridden,” he added. “Flanders should suit me even better. I’m starting with a bag full of confidence.”
Greater confidence in Van Avermaet is warranted. Much attention falls on world champion Peter Sagan and Tom Boonen in his final stretch before retirement, but Van Avermaet’s star is burning brighter.
Van Avermaet was once a second-tier classics challenger along with riders such as Lars Boom, Sep Vanmarcke, and Heinrich Haussler, but he has developed into what the newspapers call a cycling “koning,” or king. Still, he remains humble as he showed sitting with journalists Sunday.
“I nearly can’t believe it myself,” Van Avermaet continued. “I think it’s a dream for me to win these three races. I’ve been trying for so long to get on the podium and now I’m winning all three of them. For me, it’s a dream. After the finish I had to pinch myself to check if it was true.”
Van Avermaet tries to remain modest. Perhaps he should because the stronger teams could dictate Flanders. Quick-Step Floors has several options, which it tried to play Sunday by holding Niki Terpstra and forcing Peter Sagan to work.
“Once you start to think you’ve won, then you start to lose. You always need to remain modest and try to improve every time,” he said.
“I’m starting [Flanders] with much confidence but certainly not with the attitude that it can’t go wrong. I need to keep doing what I’m doing. If I don’t run into trouble then I’ll be very close next week.”
His palmarès now includes the biggest cobbled classics just one level below professional cycling’s moments Flanders and Roubaix. Before thinking too much about those, he is enjoying the moment.
“It’s my dream [to win Flanders], but this is unbelievable. If you told me this morning that I would win Gent-Wevelgem then I would’ve told you something’s just not right!” he added.
“It’s just a dream for me, winning such hard races. Now it’s all working out. It’s actually fun because my best race still has to come up.”