Van Avermaet Q&A: ‘Flanders is the race to win’

Belgian will be dark horse for BMC Racing

BMC Racing lines up Sunday at the Tour of Flanders with a super-star squad loaded with potential winners, if not the weight of a disappointing start to the cobbles season. Alessandro Ballan won Flanders in 2007, while Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd will be hogging the limelight as the team’s top current-day stars.

Lost somewhat in the shuffle this year with the arrival of Gilbert and Hushovd is 26-year-old Greg Van Avermaet, who could well be one of the outsiders for victory for Sunday’s Ronde.

A solid sprinter and budding classics specialist, Van Avermaet has been forced to step back with the arrival of the two superstars, but that’s just fine with him.

Van Avermaet knows there is a lot to learn and that time is on his side.

His palmarès are impressive: in 2008, Van Avermaet won a stage and the points jersey in the Vuelta a España. He was fifth at the 2010 world championships and enjoyed a solid 2011 campaign, with a big win at Paris-Tours and top-10 finishes at the Clásica San Sebastián (3rd), Liège-Bastogne-Liège (7th) and Milan-San Remo (9th).

Since turning pro in 2007, Van Avermaet has made steady progress and many observers believe it’s only a matter of time before he breaks out for a major win. With all eyes on Gilbert and Hushovd, this could well be the year.

So far this season, he was fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and fifth again at Strade Bianche.

Van Avermaet was caught up in the nasty finish line crash at Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend, costing him a shot at the final sprint, but he’s brushed that off and is ready for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.

VeloNews caught up with Van Avermaet earlier this year; here’s what he had to say about Flanders, Gilbert and Hushovd, and why he gave up soccer for cycling:

VeloNews: The big news for BMC Racing is the arrival of Hushovd and Gilbert; that obviously moves you down a few rungs on the power charts. How are you dealing with that?
Van Avermaet: It certainly affects me, but it makes us a very strong team for the classics. Last year, we already had a good team for the classics, this year it makes us even better. It’s a bit different. It would be stupid to say it’s not. We have two new riders who have won a lot of classics. It’s good for the team and also for me. I will not have the big pressure on me and I can learn a lot from those riders. I will work for them in the big races, but maybe I can have some luck for my own chances as well.

VN: So far in your career, you’ve had good results; you’re still missing that big win. That’s something you’re still looking for, but it’s not easy to get, is it?
GVA: No, it’s not easy to get. For winning a big classic, it’s not easy. I have been a few times close. I think my win last year from Paris-Tours was big for me. I take a lot of confidence out of that and it gave me a good end of season. Now I have to improve my level even more this year. I still have some time and maybe some day I can get that big win as well.

VN: What is the ideal scenario this year for you to win one of the big classics? It must be to win out of a small group?
GVA: I am quite fast in the finish, so for me, it’s best scenario to have a small group of several riders going to the finish, and then I can beat them in the sprint. I am always getting better with the longer races. It will be good if it’s going like this. We have to see. Every race, every classic is a bit different. I also have to have some luck and I think one day I can also win a big race.

VN: What is your favorite race or the race you would like to win most?
GVA: As a Belgian, I have to say Tour of Flanders. It’s the race you know your whole life. You grow up watching it. You’re looking forward to watching it. It’s the most important race. Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, I also like. When it’s a classic, it’s ok for me.

VN: How many years now pro for you?
GVA: I have to think now… Well, this is the start of my sixth year.

VN: Of course it takes some years to get the strength and the experience to win a big race like Flanders …
GVA: That’s true. For the classics, it’s really important that you have done the races a lot of times. Every year you learn something else, especially in the positioning. In Flanders, the positioning is very important. Every year, you can make a better race. Now I am at a stage of my career, I am only 26, but I am gaining the experience when I can start to think of something else. I have already done Flanders quite a few times, since my first year as a professional.

VN: Where are you from in Belgium? Were you a cycling fan as a kid?
GVA: I am from Lokeren. It’s not on the Flanders parcours, but very close. My family is quite cycling-minded. My two grandfathers were professional riders. One of them rode the Tour, the other rode on the same team as Fausto Coppi. My father was a professional for four years and he went to the Olympics. I really started quite late in cycling. I was 18 when I started. First, I was a football player and the love for cycling was too big and I changed sports.

VN: I read that you were quite a good goalie, but cycling proved too big of a draw?
GVA: I played goalkeeper for a long time. I also like football, because it’s easier. I was not suffering so much. Cycling gives something special. I like cycling more, because you really have to work to reach a goal. You have to prepare yourself for races. In football, it was a bit more of a game.

VN: What do cyclists think when they see footballers writhing on the ground after a tackle when you guys crash on pavement and have to get right back into the race?
GVA: It hurts, too, in football. They are completely different. You cannot compare the two sports. But like in any sport, if you reach the highest level, it’s hard. If you play with Barcelona, it’s a very physical game at that level. You have to be talented, but also when you want to reach the highest level in football, you also have to be tough and be well prepared.

VN: You decided to leave football because you dreamed of winning Flanders?
GVA: Well, part of the reason was that I reached a certain point and I realized that I could not reach the highest level of football. At that point, I wanted to try something else. I think I made the right decision. My level in cycling is higher than it would have ever been in football. I would never have played with Real Madrid or Barcelona with football, but I am playing with the best cycling team in the world. That makes a lot of difference.

VN: What is your contract situation with this team?
GVA: I still have one more year left and we are talking for a few years more. I think it would be good to stay on this team. I am happy here.

VN: What does the Tour of Flanders mean to Belgian fans? Describe that scene from a riders’ perspective?
GVA: It’s such a big day. There is so much pressure, so many expectations for that day. The journalists get all excited about it. The fans are there, drinking their beer. We riders know we are going to suffer, but we are happy to do it. If there is one race to win, it’s the Tour of Flanders. It’s the most important race. Everybody is looking forward to this day. Even to the people who do not like sport or do not like cycling, they make a special day of it. That’s a very special thing about the race.

VN: What is your take on the changes to the Flanders route and how do you think it’s going to affect the race?
GVA: I think it’s a pity. I really liked the old course. It was a good final. You could see every year that the best guy in Flanders won each time. Now they’ve changed it; we will have to race it and see what will happen. It can be difficult, because there are some roads [that are] really steep. There are only four or five guys who can pass easily, then guys behind can be in trouble, especially when it’s in bad weather. We have to wait to race it before we can say whether it’s good or not.

VN: The changes are permanent? Why do you think they changed it?
GVA: They will have this parcours at least for four years. I think they did it for the publicity. I think the guy who owns it thinks he can make more money out of it. I think a lot of riders think it should be the same as every year. Sometimes people who are deciding from higher up and the riders cannot say anything. All we can do is race it. We have nothing to say about it.

VN: What part of the race will be most decisive?
GVA: I think the final 30km will be harder. Now they’ve changed it, there are a lot of climbs, so I think it will be harder at the end of the race.