COMPIEGNE, France (VN) — BMC Racing knew they had a keeper in Greg Van Avermaet. While bigger names, like George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert, would come and go, BMC put their faith in Van Avermaet.
Their diamond in the rough was long Belgium’s nearly man, but all that changed emphatically in 2016, with his spell in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France and the gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.
A newly confident Van Avermaet carried that winning momentum straight into 2017, and no matter what happens Sunday in Paris-Roubaix, BMC Racing is more than happy that its long-view investment paid off with the team’s best spring classics campaign.
“It’s been spectacular,” BMC Racing manager Jim Ochowicz told VeloNews. “In all of these one-day races, Greg is in the hunt. If he doesn’t win, he’ll be on the podium, and if he’s not on the podium, he’ll be in the attack. He lives for these races.”
“If he doesn’t win, he’ll be on the podium, and if he’s not on the podium, he’ll be in the attack. He lives for these races.”
The 31-year-old Van Avermaet has been on a tear, winning three major races to not only emerge as the strongest rider during the classics campaign, but also as one of the few riders strong enough to challenge and beat world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Van Avermaet has been a juggernaut this spring, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3-Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, with seconds at Strade Bianche and Ronde van Vlaanderen. In fact, it literally took a crash at Flanders, along with Sagan and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) on the Oude Kwaremont, to stop him.
“The classics are never predictable,” Ochowicz said. “We got beat up a little bit [at Flanders], but the outcome isn’t bad. We still got second even with the crash. We came out OK, and nobody cries about second place in a race like Flanders.”
Ochowicz was quick to celebrate Gilbert’s Flanders victory despite the fact that the Wallonie star never won a monument during five seasons with BMC Racing.
“We got enough wins with Philippe. He won a lot of good races for us over the years. We’re happy for him,” he said. “[The decision to leave BMC] was mutual. It’s a different home for him, and another opening for us to do something different. We are just doing what we do.”
Right now, that means backing Van Avermaet 100 percent for the classics. The co-habitation of both Gilbert and Van Avermaet under the same roof often created tensions, especially since both riders are suited to the same kind of race finales. With Gilbert gone, Van Avermaet has been able to blossom both as a team leader and with the full support of the team.
Van Avermaet is the franchise rider the team was always looking for. Now in his 12th pro season, he’s fully coming into his prime. His best classics years are still ahead of him, especially in races like Flanders and Roubaix, and with hard courses on tap for the next three world championships, Van Avermaet should have opportunities to try to add the rainbow jersey to his growing collection as well.
“Greg carries the ball in these one-day races,” Ochowicz said. “It’s exciting for us. We have a nice blend of blend of riders on our team, with Richie and Tejay for the mountains, and Greg for the classics. We’ve built up those programs.”
BMC Racing stuck with Van Avermaet both in the short-term and long-term, and that patience and loyalty has paid off handsomely. Last year, he crashed out of Flanders with a broken clavicle, but bounced back to have a great Tour and Olympics. And then in November, he broke his ankle in a mountain biking accident, Ochowicz was worried.
“With that crash, we thought, ‘Oh no, we’re going to be screwed in the spring,’ but then we thought, maybe this isn’t so bad,” Ochowicz said. “Last year, the time out and the comeback put him on the podium at the Tour de France and the Olympics, and the same thing happened this spring. The only way he is going to take a time out is with something like that.”
Despite his success across the peloton, including an incredible win last summer at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, Van Avermaet is still searching for his first monument.
The elusive and prestigious one-day classics are the measure of any true champion, and Van Avermaet doesn’t hide the fact that the one race he wants to win more than any other is Flanders. That dream will be put on hold until next April.
“When you line up at any race you line up to win, and Paris-Roubaix is no exception,” Van Avermaet said in a team release “It’s no secret that Flanders was the big one for me, but I want to win a monument this year, and I have another chance this Sunday. I know I can do a good race and get the result I want. The Tour of Flanders showed that anything can happen in these races, so if everything goes to plan at Paris-Roubaix, there’s no reason why I can’t win.”
Perhaps Sunday’s day in hell could serve as deliverance. Roubaix awaits.