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Ride like the pros: Greg van Avermaet

11 Apr 2017

Why you should aim to be like the Belgian Olympic champ and Paris-Roubaix winner

Name: Greg van Avermaet
Nickname: Avi, GVA
Age: 31
Lives: Dendermonde, Belgium
Rider type: Classics specialist
Professional teams: 2006 Bodysol-Win for Life-Jong Vlaanderen; 2007-2010 Silence/Omega Pharma-Lotto; 2011- BMC
Palmares: Tour de France: 2 stage wins (2015, 2016); Tirreno-Adriatico 2016; Olympic Road Race 2016; Paris-Roubaix 2017, Gent-Wevelgem 2017; Omloop Het Niewsblad 2016, 2017; E3-Harelbeke 2017; Tour of Belgium 2015; Tour de Wallonie 2011, 2013; Paris-Tours 2011; Vuelta a Espana points jersey 2008

In cycling, you lose a lot more races than you win and that’s always been true for BMC’s Greg van Avermaet, who became known as Mr Almost between 2012 and 2014 after scoring numerous top 10 finishes but rarely converting them into victories.

However, that changed in 2016 when he donned the Tour de France’s yellow jersey for the first time, holding it for three days after victory on stage five.

He then went on to take Gold in the Road Race at the Rio Olympics, tackling a course that featured technical twisty descents made dangerous by wet conditions.

And in 2017, he’s added to that already impressive foundation and kicked on. He outsprinted Peter Sagan to take victory in the spring Classics season-opener Omloop Het Nieuwsblad for the second year running before tasting further success at E3 Harelbeke. He was bested by countryman Philippe Gilbert at the Tour of Flanders, but turned that disappointment on its head a week later by claiming victory at the Queen if the Classics, Paris-Roubaix.

Let’s find out what makes him tick...

1 Build your self-belief

WHAT? Being a constant also-ran can be debilitating for anyone’s confidence but like many professional athletes, Van Avermaet tuned into his own self-belief to push himself one step further and win.

‘I always had the feeling that I had it in me and finally it came out,’ he said after winning gold in Rio, and after a cracking 2016, his self-belief has paid dividends.

Van Avermaet can attest to the truth that in cycling it’s normal to lose a lot more than you win. ‘There are a lot of downs, it’s good to have a few extra ups,’ he said.

HOW? According to a 1994 study on behavioural conditioning when learning (Learning, Remembering, Believing: Enhancing Human Performance), self-confidence is not necessarily a motivational perspective but a judgement about capabilities for accomplishment.

Avi, like many other pros, is incredible at what he does because he’s able to move on after a loss. For many athletes the best way to fan the flames of self-confidence in the wake of a defeat is to work on physical and technical improvements.

So if you’re a bit slow, work on building that power, if you fade at the end of rides, look to build up your endurance. By learning from your failures you can identify areas of improvement and in doing so create a mental outlook that means you’ll have greater confident in your own ability.

2 Help your fellow riders

WHAT? Being one of his team’s many co-leaders, Avi is lucky enough to have a team help him achieve his goals, but when the time is ready he is there to offer a helping hand, too.

When riding in the Tour of California in 2014, Avi was coming off another spring Classics season as Mr Almost but he repaid the faith his team had placed in him.

‘This is all for the team, they supported me pretty well in the Classics so if I can help Tejay [Van Garderen] it would be good.’

It’s a trait he’s also displayed when racing for his national team, with years of pulling for the likes of Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen. In 2016, he finally got his chance and secured one of only two gold medals for Belgium at Rio.

HOW? When riding with friends, don’t sit at the back of the group. Help out by pulling your fair share of miles at the front, or risk being labelled a ‘fred’, a cycling-specific insult that’ll see you cycling on your own in future.

By being seen to be empathetic and helpful – by, say, helping a fellow rider who’s fallen behind because of a puncture – you’ll also find others will be more willing to help you out, too.

3 Build power, climb hills

WHAT? A Classics specialist like Van Avermaet needs to be a ‘puncheur’ – a strong rider who loves rolling roads with short but steep climbs. Former Head of Sports Science at the Belgian national team, Daniel Healy, spoke about their preferred training plan.

‘One session that has stood the test of time is 2 Phase Hill Repeats. This is simply a hill that is ridden at two different intensities,’ he says.

Fighting over the hills of Flanders is something a Classics specialist needs in his armoury, so Van Avermaet uses this drill to build his power.

‘The rider will enter the hill at endurance wattage then continue at the same intensity for the first half of the climb. At the mid-point, the rider will switch to a higher intensity and hold this all the way to the crest of the climb,’ Healy explained. Tough stuff.

HOW? If you have a power meter, this is a great way to chart your progress as you can measure your effort more accurately, whether that be endurance or tempo.

Otherwise using a heart rate monitor is useful. The 2 Phase Hill Repeat will push your physical boundaries but also your mental ones as motivating you to ride harder halfway up the climb can be pretty demanding. 

4 Learn from your cycling mistakes

WHAT? In 2014, in the final kilometres of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Van Avermaet found himself at the front of the race with Team Sky’s Ian Stannard.

While Avi was the faster sprinter of the two, he didn’t account for Stannard’s strategical prowess. The Team Sky rider bluffed an attack on one side before quickly moving to the opposite side, catching Van Avermaet unawares and leaving him looking behind for the burly Brit.

By the time the Belgian lifted his head, Stannard was a bike’s length clear. Fast-forward two years to the same race and Avi found himself in a three-way fight with Peter Sagan and Luke Rowe. This time when he sprinted he didn’t look back, leaving the rest in his wake to seal the win.

HOW? If you’re a racer in a crit or track league, odds are you’re going to get multiple shots at the same course or track, making it easier to hone your tactics for the next time.

If you’re more of a sportive rider, you have to apply the principles more generally. If you’re unhappy with your ride, look at what went wrong and think about what lessons you can learn before the next one.

For example, moderate your pace in the early stages to save some energy for the finish. By reviewing past performances, we can better judge our future efforts. As Van Avermaet says, ‘More experience, taking better decisions, that’s what made the biggest difference. The power compared to other years is almost the same.’

5 Use carbon handlebars

WHAT? While many pros stick to alloy handlebars, Avi likes to go with carbon for its handling over rougher terrain. ‘It just feels better on the cobblestones in the Classics,’ he says.

Winning the major early season one-day races is the Belgian’s goal for 2017, so making sure his hands are as comfortable as possible is key. A decent set of handlebars is often an overlooked decision but can help provide more secure handling and, in conjunction with a bike fit, will make riding more comfortable overall by reducing the impacts of rough roads on the wrists.

HOW? The Belgian’s BMC team use 3T Rotundo PRO handlebars which come in at a cool £225, but if that’s a little out of your price range, the alloy version are a mere £65 by comparison. 

6 Play football

WHAT? Up to the age of 19, football was Van Avermaet’s preferred sport. ‘I was doing pretty well. It was my biggest aim to be a goalkeeper at the top level,’ he says, but after being demoted to his club’s reserves he felt a change of scenery was needed.

‘I started to do cycling, because my father and grandfather were cyclists, and yeah, it worked out well,’ the Olympic champ told us. Cycling is one of the few sports where you don’t have to necessarily start from a very young age as long as you have a strong base fitness which football will give you.

If things hadn’t have worked out in cycling would Avi have gone back to booting a ball about? ‘In my life, it’s all about sports. I always follow the football pretty close. If I wasn’t a cyclist, I would try to go further in football and still see if I could reach the highest level,’ he said.

HOW? A lot of pro cyclists play football in their down time. It helps sharpen endurance fitness, trim body fat, as well as help maintain a good power-to-weight ratio.

Football is a whole body workout, too, giving your upper body some much needed exercise that you don’t get on the bike. Play in goal like Avi and you’ll also work plenty of big muscle groups as you leap about. See for more details.

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