Van Avermaet, who saw his profile take a huge jump after he struck gold in 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, cautioned Evenepoel to stay focused on racing and training, and not let his newborn celebrity become a distraction.
“My advice would be to stay calm and keep your feet on the ground, but it’s not so easy sometimes because you get recognized everywhere,” Van Avermaet said in a recent interview.
“I had the luck, if you can call it that, that I won the Olympics when I was 32, so my career was already stable and it was growing slowly.”
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Van Avermaet, 37, admitted he was as surprised as he was pleased to watch his young compatriot roar to victory at the Vuelta a España, which was Belgium’s first grand tour win since the 1970s.
To follow that up with the 2022 elite men’s world title, coupled with Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the spring, shot Evenepoel into the stratosphere.
Evenepoel was welcomed home by a horde of thousands of fans, and now his every move is making the gossip columns in Belgian newspapers.
Van Avermaet believes Evenepoel, who is honeymooning in the Maldives after his recent wedding, will not succumb to the temptations that come with sudden fame.
“It’s not easy, he can make mistakes because he’s 22, and he can learn from it. I think he will be fine,” Van Avermaet told VeloNews and Cyclingnews. “His ambition is too big for him to give up, and he has a lot of ambition in his head. That’s the most important thing in a sportsman if you want to reach your goals.”
Van Avermaet has seen a lot during his nearly two decades in the WorldTour.
He cannot help but celebrate Belgium’s first grand tour victory with Evenepoel, which was a long time coming for the cycling-crazed nation that’s produced some of the biggest legends in the sport.
“It’s 40 years ago, as a cycling country as we are, and we’ve always had great classics riders in the past, but we missed a grand tour leader in Belgium,” Van Avermaet said.
“We’ve always been a leader in the peloton, and we always had big successes as a country, but we were missing a grand tour rider,” he said. “I don’t know why it comes now. The younger kids are more interested in the classics because it’s more pushed on us. For Remco, that’s really great for Belgian cycling.”
Van Avermaet’s career began in 2006, and he emerged as one of the biggest stars alongside Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert. His profile skyrocketed after he won a gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games as well as races like Paris-Roubaix.
But like many since Johan De Muynck won the 1978 Giro d’Italia as the nation’s last grand tour, generation after generation of Belgian riders since then seemed focused, even obsessed, on the classics and shorter stage races.
Though there have been a few Belgian pros who’ve challenged for grand tour podiums, no one managed to actually come through until Evenepoel won the Vuelta in September.
“To be honest, I never thought we’d see another guy like this, but when we see him winning Liège and San Sebastián, it takes kind of a big head to do this,” Van Avermaet said. “It’s impressive, but a grand tour is something different. In a grand tour, you have to be really careful with your efforts and you have to be good in the third week because then the first two weeks don’t count. I think he managed it quite well.”
I’m currently enjoying my holidays but I’m very proud to receive the Flandrien trophy for the first time, in a year that I will never forget.🏆💙
— Remco Evenepoel (@EvenepoelRemco) October 18, 2022
Like Van Avermaet, Evenepoel considered a career in soccer before embracing cycling.
Both Van Avermaet and Evenepoel came relatively late to cycling, but Van Avermaet has only watched in awe as his younger compatriot continues to smash barriers.
“Remco was a football player like me, and he came later to the sport like me, he is just an incredible talent and he is stronger than everyone else,” he said. “Already as a junior, he was already could drop everyone from the wheel.
“We knew he was capable of doing this but it’s one thing when it comes up. He did it really well with a strong time trial and he was very good in the mountains, that will be a strength in the future because he is only 22 years old. We can expect a lot more from him.”
Van Avermaet: ‘I hope to win a race again’
While Evenepoel has reached new heights, Van Avermaet admits he’s been far from his best since joining Ag2r-Citroën on a three-year deal in 2021.
Health issues, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other problems saw him miss worlds and Tour selections, something that he vows to change going into 2023.
“The last year and a half was not so easy. I had some nice results, but not on the level that I was,” Van Avermaet said. “I struggled a bit to be better. I am working every day very hard to get back to a decent level. I am there with the best guys, but to get away from them it’s a bit harder. I keep working and I just hope to have some good luck in the final, and to win a race again.
“I am still motivated and I still love my job. So long as I can be in the top 10, I am happy to keep doing it.”