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BRUGGE, Belgium (VN) — When does a love affair with the Ronde van Vlaanderen become an obsession?
When you’re a Flandrien cycling superstar born and bred on the cobbles, there is a very thin line between the two. Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) has been straddling that divide ever since he turned pro in 2006.
“It keeps me going in the winter,” Van Avermaet said Friday. “It’s an honor to start as a favorite. I wanted to be one of them when I was a kid; now I am. For sure you have to be nervous, but it’s a healthy thing.”
After 12 starts at the biggest race in Flanders, Van Avermaet is still chasing the dream. With three podium results in the past five editions, Van Avermaet doesn’t want to consider a future without winning Flanders at least once.
“It will not change my life,” Van Avermaet said when asked what happens if he never wins. “I’ve been close but it didn’t happen. A few things have happened in the races, but I am still fighting to win it.”
At 33, he’s taken his fair share of glory, including Paris-Roubaix and the Olympic gold medal along with stints in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. Yet ask “Golden Greg” which race he wants to win most and the answer hasn’t changed since he saw the race as a little kid.
“I was eighth right away [in 2008], and I thought I’d win for sure,” he said Friday. “You have to have goals in life, and it’s my big goal. I think I still have a few years, but I’d rather win Sunday than a few years later.”
Van Avermaet is at the peak of his powers as he lines up Sunday. Though a big win has eluded him so far in the classics season, he’s been one of the most powerful. Big accelerations in last week’s E3 BinckBank Classic put him among the front-line favorites on Sunday.
A big question mark for Van Avermaet is the depth and strength of his new CCC Team. Up to now, CCC has not been as consistent as Van Avermaet would have liked. That could be troublesome if pre-race favorites Deceuninck-Quick-Step make the race difficult for its rivals.
Following a sub-par performance in last weekend’s Gent-Wevelgem, team directors and staffers sat down with the riders to lay down the law going into Sunday’s big race. The message was clear: It’s time to step up.
“There might have been some problems with crashes or positioning, but now they know,” said CCC sport director Fabio Baldato. “It’s no joke. It’s the Tour of Flanders. For us, it’s the race of the year.”
CCC Team was largely built around Van Avermaet when BMC Racing and CCC merged. Swiss veteran Michael Schar is one of the key riders for Van Avermaet and said he sees Van Avermaet riding at a winning level this spring.
“He is ready, and he has the physical and mental strength to beat Quick-Step,” Schar said. “And when it is that long, you don’t need as much support. At the end of the big races, they are quite isolated when it is mano-a-mano. That’s in favor of him. When it’s man-against-man, when it’s old-school racing, that’s his kind of style.”
Van Avermaet singled out the usual suspects as his top rivals, saying the collective strength of Deceuninck-Quick-Step, as well as Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), are the top threats. He’s noticed that longtime nemesis Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) seems a little off this spring.
“If you know Sagan, he’s always been decisive and dominant, but this year, he’s a little off,” he said. “It’s a little strange that he’s not on his level yet. But you don’t know, the step to the top level is not far with him. Maybe he will peak later, he’s still there and capable of winning the race on Sunday.”
Van Avermaet said he won’t change his tactic mid-career and vows to go down swinging like he always does.
“I’m always riding my own races,” he said. “I like my way of riding, and my character is to attack and make the race. I’m not a guy who always follows and waits. If I’m comfortable, I make my own moves. E3 and Omloop give me confidence that I can make that decisive move.”
On the eve of his 13th appearance in De Ronde, one thing doesn’t change — his excitement to be a protagonist in one of the biggest days of the season.
“If you don’t get nervous about these things then you better give up,” he said. “This is my 13th time, so I hope it is a winning one. I am ready.”