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Why Van Avermaet’s decision to race Liège is important

Greg Van Avermaet will keep his tremendous spring classics season running all the way through Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Why is this important? First off, the BMC Racing captain has momentum and fitness that he doesn’t want to see go to waste. His victory at Paris-Roubaix confirmed his emergence as cycling’s strongest rider this spring.

Secondly, this decision confirms Van Avermaet’s broadening scope. Though his central focus remains on winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the newly confident Van Avermaet is widening his net to include all of cycling’s most important races, including all five of cycling’s revered monuments.

“I’ve had a really good spring so far, so I have nothing to lose by racing,” Van Avermaet said. “I want to try and see how far I can go because it has been four years since I raced [Liège-Bastogne-Liège] the last time, so I want to see if I am able to get a good result.”

By his own admission, Van Avermaet won’t be a big favorite Sunday. He’s only raced Liège three times, 2011-2013, and finished a career-best seventh in his debut effort. Yet his strength, experience, and growing confidence mean he shouldn’t be counted out. A hard, fast race will favor a rider with the depth of the 31-year-old Belgian. A disappointing 12th at Amstel Gold Race last weekend might suggest that Van Avermaet is over-cooked, but he said he was still reeling from the effort at Roubaix. An extra week’s recovery should do him some good ahead of Liège.

“There’s a big difference in the recovery after Paris-Roubaix and Amstel Gold Race,” he said in a team release. “Paris-Roubaix was one of the hardest races I have done in my life so it was really hard to recover from it. But now, I feel OK. It has been a hard spring but I still feel good and we will just see how it goes on Sunday.”

Van Avermaet has emerged as the most consistent and strongest rider in the northern classics this spring, surpassing archrival Peter Sagan with four major victories — Roubaix, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, and Gent-Wevelgem — and second places at Strade Bianche and the Tour of Flanders.

That Van Avermaet is finishing out the spring classics campaign by racing Amstel Gold Race and Liège also provides hints that his ambitions are also reaching beyond the cobblestone classics. Most cobblestone favorites pull the plug after Roubaix, so to see Van Avermaet’s ambitions reaching into the Ardennes is significant.

As his victory last summer at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics proved, Van Avermaet has the climbing chops to someday challenge in races like Liège and the Giro di Lombardia, perhaps lining him up to take a run at sweeping all of cycling’s five monuments. So far, he’s only won one — Paris-Roubaix — and scored Flanders podiums three of the past four years. A career-best fifth at Milano-Sanremo suggested the Italian classic could be within his reach in the right circumstances, but Lombardia (a career-best 12th in five starts) and Liège could be the most distant.

Only three riders have won all five monuments — Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, and Roger De Vlaeminck — and five more won four monuments. Of today’s active peloton, Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) is the most prolific, with four monuments (Flanders, Liège, and twice Lombardia), with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Damiano Cunego (Nippo-Vini Fantini) winning three each.

Right now, any talk of a monument sweep is premature, but Van Avermaet’s decision to race Sunday confirms that he has broader ambitions.

“I’m not going there as a big favorite, it’s more just to try again and see how far I can go in this kind of race,” he concluded. “The classics are always the main goal in my season so it’s good to have one last race on home soil. I know the region and the roads well, so it’s always good to race there.”

A solid performance Sunday could confirm to Van Avermaet that a top-level spring classics campaign — from Sanremo to Liège — is possible.

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