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Flanders: Van Avermaet on the verge

An older, wiser Greg Van Avermaet heads into the holy week of cobbled races, ready to vie for glory at Tour of Flanders and Roubaix.

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Greg Van Avermaet is not the same. BMC Racing’s team leader for the classics is much cooler and more collected than in years past. It shows already in his wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno-Adriatico and sets him up as a favorite to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen on Sunday.

Van Avermaet clicked at some point over the last 12 months to become Belgium’s star for the northern cobbled classics. After many years of being the nearly man, a Tour de France stage win changed things. Now with longtime star Tom Boonen (Etixx – Quick-Step) struggling to reach form after a skull fracture in October, attention turns to the 30-year-old, soft-spoken Van Avermaet.

“But he’s still the same,” said sport director Fabio Baldato. “He is the same person, but something clicked inside him.”

He racked up top 10s, then fourth place in both the Ronde (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix, and last year, third in both cobbled monuments. Now, however, he has that killer instinct.

He showed it in the Tour’s 13th stage to Rodez last year when he out-maneuvered Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan. That must have helped him mentally, because he started 2016 firing. In the first big cobbled one-day race of the season, he helped crack the group and arrived to Ghent, where he sprinted clear of Sagan again to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

“It clicked,” the Italian sport director said. “It seems that he’s more controlling than before. Before, everyone knew that he’d be the first to go. Now, he seems to be more in control and more confident. He knows his power.

“Mentally, he’s mature, and he’s learned from his mistakes. Every time that something doesn’t go well, we discuss it. He was always strong, also before. I don’t think that his level is so much higher than the other years, it’s just that he’s mentally matured and learned from his mistakes.

“You could already see that in the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman. We started to build him a team and have a group of guys always around him. He thrived, and now he’s ready for the classics.”

The support group includes Daniel Oss, Manuel Quinziato, Michael Schär, Danilo Wyss, Jean-Pierre Drucker, and Stefan Küng. If all goes well, American Taylor Phinney could also help Quinziato for Paris-Roubaix next Sunday.

“When the teammates see their leader is strong and ready, they step up and give 100 percent,” added Baldato. “They push as much as possible and don’t give up immediately.”

Van Avermaet starts as the Belgian favorite to win the country’s biggest race this Sunday, which covers 255.9 kilometers and numerous cobbled sectors and climbs. The only hitch could be the digestive problems that kept him from racing E3 Harelbeke on Friday. However, he appeared to bounce back well in Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, when he just missed the winning move over the Kemmelberg.

Sunday, in the Ronde and a week later in Roubaix, the real progress report will come for Van Avermaet