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Van Avermaet: I feel even stronger than last year

Greg Van Avermaet will ride into cobbles season at Omloop, confident his 2018 form is even better than last year's.

MUSCAT, Oman (VN) — Following up on his brilliant 2017 won’t be easy, but Greg Van Avermaet says he’s even fitter than he was last year.

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The BMC leader already has his first win of 2018, snatching stage 3 of the Tour of Oman, and he is gearing up to take on the season’s biggest one-day races. Healthy and sporting proven form, he’s headed into classics season confident he can deliver a worthy encore to a year that saw him claim his first career monument at Paris-Roubaix.

“I feel stronger. Last year was a short winter for me. I started my preparation around the 11th or 12th of December because of my injured ankle. I came good I think, just at the right spot, but now I think everything has been really organized,” Van Avermaet told a small group of journalists in Oman.

“I had enough rest and enough training, which is really important I think, and I hope this base even better than the one I made last year. Now I think it’s just time to see how it goes. On the bike, I feel better than last year, but the most important thing is that I keep this kind of feeling through the classics.”

He will make his season debut on home turf at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Saturday and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne Sunday. Rival Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will be one of the few of top classics riders skipping Belgium’s “opening weekend,” preferring to train at altitude.

For Van Avermaet, however, there is no substitute for racing. His classics build-up this season mostly mirrors last year’s — although he joked he’d rather not duplicate his 2017 entirely, as that would involve re-breaking an ankle.

“I’m always a guy who gets better with racing and the best training for me is efforts where you can build your shape, which is hard to do in training,” he said. “It’s a different preparation. Everybody has to do what he feels good with. For me, what’s most important is the kind of old-school way I’m doing, but we saw last year that it works. I was there without altitude training, so I’m going to try to do the same this year.”

Preparation remains the same, but the supporting cast at BMC Racing has changed. Daniel Oss, one of the strongest and most accomplished classics lieutenants in the pro peloton, left the red and black squad to join Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe outfit. Van Avermaet said the Italian will be sorely missed.

“I was sad to see that [Oss] chose another team, but this is normal also. He knew Peter from before, and we could only give one-year contracts,” Van Avermaet said, noting BMC’s sponsor situation, which is unconfirmed after 2018. “[Bora-Hansgrohe] could offer three-year contracts. I think he was a valuable player in the team. He helped me a lot in the classics.

“It will be sad to see him leaving. I hope he doesn’t help Sagan that much! But that’s how it is. We are still friends. When we ride against each other in the race it’s man to man and we are rivals, but after we can sit together and drink a coffee.”

That said, BMC did not sit idly by over the winter. It will be difficult to replace Oss’s contributions on the cobbles. BMC did bring on veteran Jurgen Roelandts and up-and-comer Alberto Bettiol. On the balance, the team could be just as strong as before. Van Avermaet says he is confident the replacements can get the job done.

Although a few marquee lieutenants may have changed kit this offseason, most of the top classics captains stayed put. Van Avermaet expects all the familiar names to be in the mix this spring, with little changing from last season beyond the retirement of Tom Boonen.

“Peter [Sagan] will always be there, he’s one of the main contenders. Phil [Gilbert] will also be in good shape again. There are several others I think. You can name 10-15 good riders in the classics. Everybody has his own specific goals,” he said.

“It’s going to be the same at the end. BMC is racing for me. We are going for our own strength and the most important thing is getting me first over the finish line. It doesn’t matter if it’s Sagan or Boonen or Gilbert on my wheel. I just want to win myself. That’s the main objective.”

It’s never an easy proposition, winning against the likes of Sagan or a resurgent Gilbert, but if Van Avermaet has the form, he has as good a chance as any. The Belgian may have cast off his former label as a “nearly man” with wins at the Rio Olympics and Paris-Roubaix, but he is still hungry to win the Tour of Flanders, the crown jewel of Belgian one-day racing.

To get there in the best possible shape, Van Avermaet will be going full gas over the next few weeks. Fans won’t have long to wait to see him in action in the cobbles. “Opening weekend” is only a few days away.