Photographs: James Startt
One of the world’s top one-day riders, the Belgian was looking forward to another classics season, and a chance to finally win the Tour of Flanders. But like everyone in cycling, his hopes and aspirations have been put on hold due to the coronavirus crisis. The amiable 34-year-old is doing his best to focus on the positive. Van Avermaet spoke with reporters on a press phone call on Thursday, and the 2016 Olympic road race champion indicated he’s enjoying the unexpected time at home with his family. And in Belgium, where cyclists can still ride outside, he has been taking time to discover new roads, as he eagerly awaits the return to racing.
Q: Greg how have you been spending your extra time at home?
Greg Van Avermaet: Well, Belgium is not in total lockdown. The hospitals are doing quite well and are not overpacked, like in Italy or Spain. We can still go outside and do exercise by ourself. The government even encourages people to get out and do some sports on [their] own. So we are still quite lucky in Belgium. Life in Belgium is slowing down, but in a sense, my own life has not been affected so much on a daily level. The biggest difference is that we are not traveling to racing and I spend a lot of time speaking with the media here, trying to give them an athlete’s perspective on the ever-changing situation. And other that I am trying to spend as much time as possible with the kids and working around the house a bit. The days go by really quickly, to be honest. But we have to be careful and hopefully, sooner rather than later, this will come to an end and we can make some goals for the end of the season.
Q: What kind of training have you been doing?
GVA: Mostly just endurance training. I’ve been doing some mountain biking, or looking for some new roads around here. That is something I like doing and the weather has been good. Mostly I just want to go out and ride so that I can feel healthy.
Q: What is it like as a Belgian not to have the classics this spring?
GVA: Well it is hard for all of us. I can really see what everybody is missing. There have been a lot of re-runs of old races on television, or on websites. And that has been really popular. I have actually really enjoyed watching some old races myself. It is not something I do often, but perhaps I should, because I can learn from watching the old races. And when I am out on the roads, I sense a lot of support. People often shout out that they hope that they [say] we can race again soon. In some ways, people are friendlier right now.
Q: There have been a lot of virtual cycling events and there will be a virtual Flanders event this Sunday. Have you been participating in any of them?
GVA: In general, I am not a big fan of virtual cycling because I still love the real thing—the positioning, the wind, the different factors of stress. All of that is so important in Flanders, but I can certainly understand its attraction and with new technology it is just getting better and better.
But yeah I will be participating this weekend, in the virtual Flanders. I think it is important to give something back to the races and fans. It gives us something to look forward to!
Q: Obviously as reigning Olympic Champion, you were motivated to defend your title. Was it particularly hard to see the event postponed?
GVA: Yeah for sure. I was really hoping that it could still happen, but then there just came a point where it was clear that it was not possible. I was really looking forward to it. I liked the course, and coming after the classics and the Tour de France, I was hopeful that I could be in good shape for the Olympics, but now we will have to see. I am getting older, so we will have to see how this plays out.
Q: In some ways I thought you would be the only guy happy with the Olympics being postponed. After all, now you will be the Olympic champion for five years!
GVA: Yeah well a lot have people have said this, but really that would just show a lack of ambition. I won it and I want to defend it. Winning the Olympics really changed my life because it is so much bigger than cycling.
Q: What was harder, missing the classics or the Olympics?
GVA: Oh that’s a hard question and I don’t think I can really answer it. Both are really important and we can do both. It is not like a grand tour rider that must pick and choose each year. If there is one lesson that cyclists can learn from this, it is that we shouldn’t take any of these events for granted. Our careers are short, and we just have to go for it, full-gas! I just hope that at some point we can start the season again. But that will be up to the authorities.
Q: What races do you think should have priority once the racing does begin since there are a lot of races that need to be rescheduled?
GVA: Oh it is quite hard to say. For me, I really hope for the Tour de France. If they cancel the Tour de France it would be hard for us and for our sponsors to have a good season. The UCI has to study the calendar and see what races can be re-scheduled. Some race organizers cannot reschedule. I am friends with the organizer of E3 and he said to me that it is impossible for him to have one edition at the end of the year and then another early the following year. He just would not have the budget. So not every race wants to be rescheduled. But it would be great to have the monuments like Sanremo, Flanders, and Roubaix at the end of the year, if that is possible. It would be great if those races don’t have a blank year in their palmares. We will definitely have to race later in the year, but we are all willing to do that I think, and it is possible to give our sponsors the visibility they need.
Q: Can you imagine Flanders or Roubaix in the autumn? How can or will that change things?
GVA: Well I can’t really imagine it right now, but we will have to. What will it change? Well the weather can be bad in the spring or the fall. Really, I think that the biggest difference will be that riders will have a grand tour in the legs in the fall. Some riders come out of the grand tours stronger than others. Some riders struggle to recover more than others. But the good riders are always there. It might be hard to fit in three, three-week tours at the end of the year. But I think it is really important for the classics riders to have an opportunity. I think it would be more of a loss for the classics riders than grand tour riders because we really don’t have many opportunities.
Q: A lot of teams have announced pay cuts. Have you had discussions with your team?
GVA: Yeah we are talking. I think the most important thing is to be aware of what your sponsors are feeling about the crisis. If your sponsor is a supermarket, well, they are probably doing quite well. But companies like CCC or Giant bikes — our biggest sponsors — are suffering from this crisis. And I think it is normal in these moments we have to be open for some kind of a pay cut. I think it is normal during these times. I am not able to do my job 100 percent and we need to get through this together.