The Belgian enters the Tour of Flanders as the rider to beat after years of coming up short in the cobbled monument.
Greg Van Avermaet always knew good things would come. Ever since he turned pro in 2007, expectations were piled high for the versatile rider from the heart of Flanders country. He could climb, the could sprint, and he had the pedigree to shine in the classics.
Yet for as many wins as he racked up, that “big win” still eluded him. Van Avermaet kept banging his head against the wall, and after years of animating the northern classics (including double podiums at the 2015 Flanders and Roubaix), salvation came in the most unlikely of places: the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. He started as an outsider and struck gold. That win didn’t change everything, but rather served as confirmation of what he knew he had inside him.
“The Olympics was my biggest win, but I always knew I could win big races like that,” the BMC Racing rider said. “I always knew it in my heart. The differences between winning and losing are very small, and for racers like us, we only get four or five chances a year to win.”
Flash forward to this spring, and Van Avermaet is on an undeniable tear, winning three major races so far — Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, and Gent-Wevelgem — and will start Sunday’s Tour of Flanders as the man to beat. For Van Avermaet, Flanders is the race he’s been dreaming of winning since he was a kid. He’s a product of the Flanderen cycling culture, both his father and grandfather were professional racers, and on Sunday, it could finally come together.
“I’m finally where I want to be,” Van Avermaet said at a team camp. “I kept fighting all those years, always coming close. I’m 31, and now I am at the top of the classics. I am ready to win these big races I’ve always dreamed of.”
BMC Racing, with a team as deep as any in the peloton, will be riding in full support of Van Avermaet. With the departure of Philippe Gilbert to rival Quick-Step Floors, there is no more questioning who will be the team leader for the big dates in Belgium. And the way Van Avermaet has been racing this spring, everyone will be marking his every move. Along with Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Van Avermaet is the man to beat at the Ronde.
“We know that every team will be looking at us on Sunday, but when you have a leader as strong as Greg, that doesn’t matter,” BMC sport director Fabio Baldato said. “Greg knows how to race, when to make a move, and as we have seen … he can sprint against anyone at the end of a long, hard race.”
At 31, Van Avermaet has finally come into his own. After riding in the shadow of Gilbert at BMC, he is the team’s singular bet for the northern classics. And with the rivalry that marked their generation between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen over, Van Avermaet stands poised to step up and emerge as the peloton’s northern classics dominator for the next few years.
“We know Greg can win a race like Flanders, it’s just a matter of time,” BMC manager Jim Ochowicz said during a team camp. “There are a handful of guys who can win these big races, and Greg is right there at the top. The classics are a different kind of racing. They’re hard, longer, and weather can be a challenge. Greg just loves racing in those conditions.”
In fact, with Boonen retiring following his final appearance in Paris-Roubaix next month, and Gilbert also starting to look toward the final years of his career, Van Avermaet is now Belgian’s biggest cycling star. His victory in Rio not only served as a kind of “just rewards” for a rider who’s consistently been knocking on the door of a major victory, but it also catapulted him into a higher media profile. Unlike Boonen, who’s lived and raced under the media glare his entire career, all the attention is something new for Van Avermaet. And yet he seems to be taking it in stride, and he’s used the victory in Rio as a reason to work harder, not wallow in the glory of the Olympic medal.
“Lining up on Sunday will be a really special feeling,” Van Avermaet said. “I know I’m the strongest I’ve ever been in spring and this year the race passes my house. I say it every year; I know the roads so well, I train every day on the parcours, and this year I feel like it’s my turn. I’m going to race aggressively and I have seven riders completely dedicated to helping me win. There’s nothing more I can do to prepare. I’m ready.”
There’s no bigger prize for a Belgian rider than to win the Tour of Flanders. Van Avermaet is already a superstar, but a victory Sunday at the Ronde would assure him a place as one of Belgium’s greatest. After waiting and working for nearly a decade, Van Avermaet’s time has come. All he has to do is win.