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DENIA, Spain (VN) — Being Belgium’s eternal second-place might have been a blessing in disguise for Greg Van Avermaet.
The BMC classics captain is now Belgium’s undisputed cycling superstar, but for years, Van Avermaet rode in the shadow of Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert. Even if the big wins were late in coming, it might not have been such a bad thing.
“I was not the biggest star at 25, so when you win Paris-Roubaix at 32, it’s easier to handle,” Van Avermaet said. “It’s cool to be one of the representatives of Belgium, but the attention is not as big as what Tom had to deal with.”
When Boonen rocketed to the world title in 2005 after winning the Flanders-Roubaix double, he was only 25 years old, and soon became tabloid fodder across Belgium. In contrast, Van Avermaet’s slow-cooker arrival to the top of the peloton allowed him the chance to mature and find his balance on his terms.
So when the major successes finally started coming, Van Avermaet never lost his cool.
“I am pretty calm and have my feet on the ground,” Van Avermaet said. “I was always hoping the big wins would come. I was grateful when they finally did.”
Van Avermaet’s biggest victories — the 2016 Olympic road race gold medal and the 2017 Roubaix — came after he had been knocking around the peloton for more than a decade. So meetings these days with prime ministers and kings don’t knock him off balance.
In fact, you would never know that Van Avermaet is one of cycling’s biggest stars. There’s no attitude. No over-sized ego trips. He’s as nice to the waitress working the coffee machine as he is to the King of Belgium.
“Greg is our leader for the classics, but he remains as humble as ever,” said BMC Racing general manager Jim Ochowicz, who signed Van Avermaet in 2011. “We’ve believed in him for a long time. He’s been chasing those big wins for a long time, so he deserves them.”
Still buzzing from the Olympic glory, in 2017, Van Avermaet uncorked a Boonen-like run across the northern classics. Van Avermaet was unstoppable. He started off his spring campaign with victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and nearly swept the northern classics, winning E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Roubaix. Only a crash at the Tour of Flanders, where he finished second to the solo-attacking and ex-teammate Gilbert, thwarted the clean sweep.
“I think I would have won the race if we had not crashed,” he said. “At the finish line you are disappointed. Racing isn’t going like you want, there’s crashing, flat tires, but that is part of the race. I was proud that was I was able to get up and still finish second.”
Van Avermaet carried that momentum into Roubaix, taking a win at a race that he never truly believed he was ever going to win. He even raced Liege-Bastogne-Liege — something he won’t repeat next year — finishing 11th.
What was the difference between always coming close, and winning? For Van Avermaet, the unexpected Olympic victory in Rio changed everything.
“It’s a question of confidence,” he said. “I don’t know if I am any stronger than I used to be, but before, you are always wanting it, wanting it, and you make mistakes. Before, I was too hungry to win. Now I am much more relaxed. If it comes to me, I take it. That’s a big difference.”
That’s the mindset of a winner. Van Avermaet doesn’t line up to the big races anymore thinking and hoping he can win. Now he knows he can, and he only wants more.
“Something would always go wrong,” he said. “I was not expecting this series of wins. It was such a special feeling. I was trying so long just to get on the podium, and then it was back to back to back wins.”
For 2018, Van Avermaet would love to hit the repeat button on his past season, with a few wrinkles. He’d like to perform better during the Tour de France and world championships. But he knows there is only one race he truly wants to win.
“I will always say Flanders is the most important,” he said. “It’s the race that fits me the best, and I’d like to win. If I am honest, my biggest dream is to win Flanders. I want to be good there.”
The Flanders quest continues. Van Avermaet vows to keep racing until he wins at least one Ronde.