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Greg Van Avermaet sympathizes with Tom Dumoulin’s decision to leave pressure-cooker peloton

Olympic champion said finding balance is key to his 15-year career at the top.

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Greg Van Avermaet knows what it’s like to live with pressure. The reigning Olympic champion literally has the weight of a nation on his shoulders in just about every race he starts.

So the veteran Belgian classics star can empathize with Tom Dumoulin and the Dutch rider’s stunning decision to step out of the peloton for an undetermined amount of time.

“The pressure is always there, but I can understand a guy like Tom, who feels this pressure, and it’s hard sometimes to push the pedals,” Van Avermaet said. “I can understand him. The most important thing is to have fun on the bike, and do what you like to do.”

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Last month, Dumoulin stunned the peloton by abruptly walking out of Jumbo-Visma’s pre-season training camp. The 2017 Giro d’Italia cited mental fatigue and burn out, and said he’s not sure when he will return to racing.

“It is really as if a backpack of a hundred kilos has slipped off my shoulders,” Dumoulin said last month. “I immediately woke up happy. It feels so good that I finally took the decision to take some time for myself. That says enough. I have been feeling for quite a while that it is very difficult for me to know how to find my way as Tom Dumoulin the cyclist.”

Van Avermaet said he understands the stress that comes with being a star rider in the peloton. The 35-year-old debuts his 2021 season in his new Ag2r-Citroën colors Wednesday at the Etoile de Bessèges. Though it’s a relatively minor race, Van Avermaet said he’s already feeling the heat.

“It’s always like this,” Van Avermaet said of the unending pressure to perform. “Even before Bessèges, people are asking me about the results. I hope I can, but we will see.”

Van Avermaet — five years older than Dumoulin — said he’s tried to maintain a balance both on and off the bike to help him deliver results on the road, but not let it overwhelm his life. He said it’s small things like riding his mountain bike instead of always being a slave to the road, or a few off-season delights like an occasional Belgian beer that help keep him fresh going into each season.

“I’ve always aimed for a long career, by not being that strict all the time,” Van Avermaet said. “You do everything correct as possible, but the most important is to have fun on the bike.”

Having some unfinished business also keeps Van Avermaet coming back for more. Though he’s won such races as Paris-Roubaix and the Olympic title, he is still driven by his goal of winning the Tour of Flanders.

“That’s always been my biggest goal of my career is to enjoy racing. Results have to come as well and the pressure is there — this you feel,” he said. “Most of the time, the results will come, and I try not to think too much about what will happen if I don’t deliver.”

The Belgian said a change of teams in 2021, with a three-year deal to join the French WorldTour team, is also giving him fresh wings.

“It’s been nice to change teams,” he said. “I was part of the same team [BMC/CCC] for a long time, so a change can be quite nice to be around new people, new ways of doing things. I am very motivated and ambitious for this season. I can’t wait to race.”

Greg Van Avermaet shows off the new AG2R CITROËN jersey. Photo: Vincent Curuchet