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Commentary: How Van Avermaet can become a superstar

When Greg Van Avermaet sprinted past Zdenek Stybar to win Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, I checked my social media feed to gauge the reaction. Fans seemed happy for Van Avermaet and BMC, and moderately amused by a tactical race. Yet the room temperature reaction was lukewarm. It was like watching casual baseball fans react to the Kansas City Royals winning the World Series. It’s nice and all, but when the Chicago Cubs won, everybody went bonkers.

I couldn’t help imagine the jubilation that cycling Twitter would have felt if Peter Sagan had won, or if Tom Boonen had somehow fended off his rivals (and father time) to ride alone into the Roubaix velodrome to win his fifth. The Van Avermaet win didn’t pump up the international cycling community in the same way.

On paper, Van Avermaet is a wonderful champion. Thus far he has followed up last year’s Olympics win with a dazzling 2017. He’s won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, and now Roubaix. He’s a tactical genius who races with efficiency and cutthroat tactics.

But he is not a superstar on the same level as Boonen or Sagan. He knows it, the Belgians know it, and we fans know it. Regardless, he could learn a few things from his now-retired countryman to get a little PR boost, endear himself to fans, and become more of a star to match his growing palmares.

Tommeke captured our hearts in a variety of ways. With a number pinned on, Boonen was fearless, just as capable of winning with a sprint (Paris-Roubaix 2005 and 2008, for instance) as he was of riding a long-range solo attack to success, like in Roubaix 2012. He won in a variety of ways — fans get tired of the same scenario each race, after all. Boonen also had a superstar’s public persona. Being young (25 when he won both Flanders and Roubaix) and handsome (remember his Euro faux-hawk?) are huge advantages, but his charismatic personality was his biggest advantage. He had a rock song dedicated to him:

Northwave literally treated him like a movie star in one series of ads for its shoes:

So let’s return to Van Avermaet — can he do anything to chase a little bit of that stardom that helped Boonen become an international fan favorite? Here are five ideas:

Long-range attack. One issue for a lot of casual fans is that Van Avermaet isn’t inclined to win with a bombastic long-range breakaway. GVA follows wheels and sprints at precisely the right moment, which doesn’t usually provoke coffee-spilling jubilation at the end of a race. Think back to stage 5 of the 2016 Tour, which he won in a solo breakaway. We need to see more of that hot action in a major classic next spring. Here’s my idea: Van Avermaet hops into the early breakaway at this weekend’s Amstel Gold Race and tries to fend off the pack for 200km.

Go for gold. Why on earth did Van Avermaet choose to paint his bike silver when he’s the gold medal winner!? Take a lesson from 2008 Olympic champ Samuel Sanchez and drape yourself in gold at every chance. Gold earrings, gold shoes, gold bike, gold sunglasses, etc.  BMC, I’m looking to you for this one. Don’t let Greg talk you into a bronze bike for the Tour.

Greg, buddy, you’re holding Jakob Fuglsang’s bike. Yours should be gold because, remember, you won the Olympics. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Get help from sponsors. For the last decade Quick-Step Floors has bombarded the internet with oodles of wacky photos of Boonen. BMC Racing’s partners — and Van Avermaet — should take note. For instance, do you see any of the world’s biggest rap stars wearing Tag Heuer watches? Nope. That might change with a little star power. The 157-year-old Swiss company could produce a limited-edition, solid-gold watch with a miniature Roubaix cobblestone embedded at the top of the dial. I don’t care how heavy it is — GVA should always wear it in the races.

Go viral. Peter Sagan has figured this one out (among many other things). He’s got his “Grease” tribute video, his inspirational movie montage video, and now even a little cooking program. Okay, maybe GVA is too shy for this sort of stuff, so how about a little back-up from Daniel Oss (a superstar teammate in Roubaix on Sunday) for a buddy comedy! Perhaps the duo could remake kitschy ’80s sitcoms like “Perfect Strangers” or “Bosom Buddies.”

Now that is what I call team chemistry. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Just win a lot. If Van Avermaet doesn’t want to go the wacky route, he can always just win a ton of races. That is his most likely route to international superstardom. After all, these races will pit him against Sagan, and cycling loves a good rivalry. If Van Avermaet vs. Sagan becomes the next Boonen vs. Cancellara, then his international stock will continue to rise. More victories will also bring a new storyline to the Van Avermaet persona: Can he win as many monuments as Boonen or Cancellara? He has one monument, and they both have seven. Winning six more won’t be easy, of course, but that type of career would surpass any YouTube video, wacky photo shoot, or sponsor promotion.

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