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Van Avermaet targets classics for ‘big win’

The Belgian had several close calls last season, and is now focused on crossing the line first for 2015

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Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) is hoping to hit the replay button on the 2014 season, but change those oh-so-close podium places for outright victories.

Last year was a breakthrough season for the 29-year-old Belgian on many levels. For the first time in his career, BMC gave him outright leadership duties in the northern classics, and he delivered some incredible rides. Second places at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad don’t quite haunt him; instead they are evidence that he’s on the right track, and he’s intent on stepping up even higher on the podium this spring.

Saturday’s Omloop will see Van Avermaet return to form in the race where he announced his arrival with aggressive racing, only to be out-dueled by Ian Stannard (Sky) in the finale.

For Van Avermaet, those close calls only serve to boost his motivation and confidence coming into the meat of the 2015 classics season.

“I was already very close last year, and I keep making small progressions, and it’s getting closer and closer,” Van Avermaet said. “I am hoping I can win a big classic. I know I can beat those guys. I am already close.”

For 2015, Van Avermaet is hoping to shed the “close by not quite” tag that’s haunted him a bit over the past few seasons. He’s won stages at the Vuelta a España and such races as Paris-Tours en route to 17 professional wins, but he was oh-so-close to huge wins in 2014, with second at Flanders to Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and second to Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in stage 2 of the 2014 Tour de France. He also missed out on a worlds medal, with fifth in a bunch sprint behind Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step).

Rather than fall into frustration, Van Avermaet insists he finds only reasons to be optimistic coming into 2015.

“The big dream is to win Flanders. I was close last year, and had Quick Step raced a bit differently, I might have already had won Flanders,” he said, referring to Quick Step’s call to have Stijn Vandenbergh sit on his wheel. “It was frustrating that they wouldn’t let him ride with me. Every team has their tactic.”

Last year, Van Avermaet grabbed the chance to become BMC’s outright leader for the cobbles. With Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Ballan both out of the frame, Van Avermaet got the chance he was always hoping for.

For BMC, Van Avermaet’s designation as team captain is confirmation that the team believes he can win such races as Flanders or perhaps even Paris-Roubaix.

“I see Greg making one more step. He was already a different rider than he was in 2013. His confidence has grown by leaps and bounds,” BMC sporting manager Alan Peiper said. “You can see it in the way he intermingles with the team. There is a certain swagger to his walk, an air of confidence that he never had before.”

Van Avermaet has raced in the shadow of his more-famous, more-prolific compatriots, teammate Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen (Etixx). He’s still a very big star in bike-crazy Belgium, but he knows he needs to win a race like Flanders to confirm his status.

Already in 2014, BMC was giving Van Avermaet more room to move. With Gilbert focusing on the Ardennes, their two agendas rarely crossed. And when they did, at such races as Milano-Sanremo or the Amstel Gold Race, there was strength in numbers.

“If those two can find a rapport, they can be a dynamic duo,” Peiper said of Gilbert and Van Avermaet.

At last year’s worlds, Gilbert unselfishly took huge pulls for Van Avermaet to try to reel in Kwiatkowski and set him up for a medal.

Van Avermaet insists he has the goods to deliver a “big win.”

“I want that big win. I’ve had a good career, and I was a winner a lot at U23, and I had some early wins when I turned pro. I think I still have that killer instinct,” he said. “Last year gave me a lot of confidence. I made the decision to attack in the races, and that’s the way I like to race. That gives me confidence for 2015 that I can take that big win.”

It all starts Saturday at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Van Avermaet is hoping to hit the repeat button, but only changing the finish-line photo, with him coming across the line first.