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Throwback Thursday: Greg Van Avermaet in search of one last dance

'Golden Greg' Van Avermaet won Roubaix and the Olympic medal, but still harbors ambitions as he rides into 2022.

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Greg van Avermaet has nothing left to prove in professional cycling.

A winner of Paris-Roubaix and the Olympic gold medal means his place in cycling history is assured.

Yet the veteran Belgian star wants one more big ride before he hangs up the pedals. The eternal quest is Ronde van Vlaanderen, where he’s often shined but never won.

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For 2022, Van Avermaet joins his spring classics colleagues in hoping this year is a return to the norm, with fans and beer tents out in force along the bergs of western Belgium.

Yet what made Van Avermaet so special?

He was a relative late-bloomer. A former soccer goalie, Van Avermaet came to cycling in his late teens, when many of today’s youngsters are already turning pro. He proved a quick learner and was quickly moving up the ladder before his big breakthrough with BMC Racing.

This week, James Startt and Andrew Hood look back at his dramatic career.

When did you realize that Greg Van Avermaet was special?

Greg Van Avermaet always raced to honor the jersey. (Photo: James Startt)

James Startt: I would have to say that incredible spring campaign in 2017 where he won Het Nieuwsblad, Ghent-Wevelgem, E3 Grand Prix, and Paris-Roubaix. I mean I know that GVA dreams of winning Flanders, but that was pretty much a near-perfect run and I cannot recall another rider dominating the spring classics in such an overwhelming fashion.

Andrew Hood: Greg LeMond knew how special Van Avermaet was when he was just months old. There’s the famous shot of the American superstar holding a newly born Greg in his arms, because his father was also a pro at the time, and LeMond was friends with the Van Avermaet family.

Anyone who races in the WorldTour is already in a special class. And Van Avermaet soon started racking up wins, even if it did take him a bit longer than he would have liked to have won a “big one.”

And once he did, the wins started flowing like dark Belgian beer.

One standout moment for me came during his spells in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. Most riders would take a day or two in yellow as an added bonus, and then step aside. Yet when Van Avermaet rode into yellow, he fought until the final pedal stroke to honor and respect the prized tunic. Pure class.

What has been your standout Van Avermaet moment?

NAMUR, BELGIUM - SEPTEMBER 15: Greg Van Avermaet of Belgium and AG2R Citröen Team with teammates during the team presentation prior to the 61st Grand Prix de Wallonie 2021 a 208,1km race from Aywaille to Citadelle de Namur 199m / @tourdewallonie / on September 15, 2021 in Namur, Belgium. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)
Greg Van Avermaet, a former winner, still wants to win Flanders. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

AH: It had to be the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. I was working there as a media officer for the International Olympic Committee, and set myself up right at the finish line.

No one, not even Van Avermaet, expected he would win that day.

The course featured a brutal climb up and over a wall overlooking Ipanema Beach, and Van Avermaet, ever the expert bike-handler and climber, was staying within range of a slew of attacking riders.

Of course, everyone knew what happened next. Richie Porte, Vincenzo Nibali, and Sergio Henao all crashed on a narrow, twisting descent. Ever-steady Van Avermaet caught and passed Rafal Majka on the flats, and let out a roar that was heard all the way back in Ghent when he bolted across the line the winner.

JS: Well I would say Roubaix in 2017. Greg had been knocking on the door of a monument win for so long and he finally got one in the “Hell of the North.” Up until that point he kept getting beat out in the sprint to the line by somebody with a faster kick, or outgunned by bigger teams. I was really wondering just where and how he would find a path to victory, or if he would at all. But everything came together in Roubaix that year as he outsprinted Zdeněk Štybar and Sebastian Langeveld in the velodrome. I think everybody in the Roubaix velodrome was really happy for Greg that day because victory really couldn’t have come to a more deserving rider or a nicer guy.

Do you have any personal story or anecdote from an interaction with Van Avermaet?

A golden bike for an Olympic champion. (Photo: James Startt)

JS: You know we call GVA “Golden Greg.” And he earned that nickname well before he won the Olympic Gold Medal in Rio. He earned it basically because he is such a good guy and so easy to work with. My Golden Greg moment in the Grand Prix de Quebec back in 2018. I have covered every edition as the race photographer and he has raced most years as they are great prep for the world championships.

For years we were housed in the Château Frontenac, this magnificent historic hotel in the heart of Quebec. One year I had photographed him in the large reception area, and after the first training ride, I told him that I had found a cool corner to do another portrait. He liked the idea and we walked up to the hotel together and did the show. He sat in the corner on this lavish 18th- or 19th-century chair surrounded by historic paintings in gold leaf frames.

He was totally relaxed in his BMC kit and looked like a king. I was really happy with the image and so was he, so he asked me to send it to him via his press officer, Phoebe Haymes. But when I did, Phoebe said instantly that we could not use the image as he was not wearing team issue sneakers due to a foot ailment.

It was a real panic moment as the image had already started to circulate and had been sent to some newspapers in Belgium. But a couple of minutes later she said that Greg was willing to get dressed back in his kit and redo the shot. And that is what we did. In the end, it all worked out brilliantly, but I have been in the game long enough to know that such moments are rare. But then GVA is a pretty rare champion.

AH: BMC Racing always held its pre-season team camp in the same hotel near Denia (there’s a great golf course there, too, by the way), and like many teams, journalists are invited to come down for a day or two to conduct pre-season interviews.

The big draw in mid-January was the lobby bar, where sport directors, staffers, and journalists would hang out between interviews. I had an appointed time with Van Avermaet, and instead of sitting down elsewhere, we chatted right there at the bar.

After the perfunctory questions, the interview wound down, and I expected him to get up and leave. Instead, we stayed there and chatted for about an hour bikes and Belgian beers. A gentleman both on and off the bike.