By Andrew Hood
If you haven’t heard of him already, Greg Van Avermaet is a name to watch in the upcoming northern classics.
Strong and fast, the 22-year-old Silence-Lotto sprinter won five races last year as a neo-pro. Some in Belgium are already calling him the “next Tom Boonen.”
Van Avermaet, shy and reserved, shrugs off such talk.
“I have a lot to learn. Last year I won a few races, but I hope to step up this year in terms of quality of races,” he told VeloNews. “I don’t know how far I can go. My dream is to win Flanders, but maybe in another two or three years I can have my possibilities. Now I work for the team and learn.”
Accolades are piling up fast for Van Avermaet, however, who started relatively late to cycling by Belgian standards, not getting serious about racing and training until he was 18.
“He has a big future, that’s one of the reasons we signed him to the team,” said Silence-Lotto sport director Hendrik Redant. “He’s very strong and he’s very fast in the finish. He has the characteristics to be a big classics rider someday. Whether that happens, we have to wait and see. He’s still young. Now it’s important for him to learn.”
Instead of bikes, Van Avermaet thought he might have a future playing professional soccer. He was one of Belgium’s top junior goalies, but never quite made it to the top tier of the national junior and under-23 teams that serve as a springboard to the pro leagues.
“I played at a high level on the national teams, but there were always a few guys in front of me. Plus, you train hard all day and there was no gain. It wasn’t much fun,” he says. “I started racing bikes when I was 18. My father was an amateur racer and he turned me on to it. Right away I feel like I made the right choice. In cycling, I know the team counts for a lot at the professional level, but at the under-23s, when you win, it’s because you were the strongest. It’s all for you. In soccer, it’s a team victory, so it’s a different feeling.”
His 2008 campaign started out strong enough, with third overall and the best young rider’s jersey at Tour of Qatar and a solid week at Ruta del Sol in Spain in February, but he lost more a month off the bike after coming down with a nasty ear infection that disrupted his sense of balance.
Staying upright on the bike is essential at any speed, so he couldn’t train until mid-March, knocking out an important race and training window ahead of the classics season. He skipped planned starts at Paris-Nice as well as Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, two races that are well-suited for his characteristics.
His first race back was the 298km Milan-San Remo and he finished a respectable 53rd at 21 seconds behind winner Fabian Cancellara.
Four days later, he was part in the winning breakaway early on at Dwars door Vlaanderen only to repeat the feat to sneak into the winning move in Saturday’s E3 Prijs Vlaanderen to take third behind winner Kurt-Asle Arvesen.
All this bodes well for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, where Van Avermaet will line up as an outsider whose main task will be helping team captain Leif Hoste.
“I’ll be working for Hoste in the big races, but maybe in some of the smaller races I’ll have my chances,” Van Avermaet said. “Hoste is the captain for Flanders and Roubaix, so we all will be working for him.”
That might change in a few years as Van Avermaet’s star continues to rise.