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GVA: Greg Van Avermaet profile

Mark Bailey
9 Jul 2018

The Olympic champion and Paris-Roubaix winner discusses his stunning rise, his strange link to Greg LeMond, and the power of self-belief

Greg Van Avermaet is sitting beneath a wooden pergola in his garden in the Flemish town of Dendermonde, reflecting on the most extraordinary 12 months of his life.

The Belgian spent three days in the yellow jersey at the 2016 Tour de France, won a shock gold medal in the Olympic Road Race in Rio and – after a series of narrow defeats in major one-day races – finally claimed his first Monument win, at Paris-Roubaix in April.

After a stunning 2017 spring campaign that also saw him triumph at Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, as well as take second place in the Tour of Flanders and Strade Bianche, he is now above Peter Sagan, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Chris Froome at the top of the UCI World Rankings.

He also won two stages and the overall classification at the Tour of Luxembourg in June, and while no further wins have followed since then – perhaps inevitably given his intensive spring programme, Van Avermaet remains top of the UCI rankings.

‘I am really proud that I am number one,’ says Van Avermaet, whose curly brown hair and boyish grin make him look younger than his 32 years.

Today he is wearing the all-black leisure apparel of his team, BMC, which only emphasises his youthfully lean silhouette.

‘It’s a hard thing to get all these world ranking points.

‘But being number one is something I have to laugh at as I never expected it. I only started cycling when I was 18 years old.

‘Of course, it comes with pressure. At the Tour of Luxembourg they announced me as “the number one in the world”. But it is something cool.

‘I’m friends with Valverde and Sagan and they are incredible riders who win a lot of points so it really means something to be ahead of them.

Real value

‘You don’t live to top the rankings. You live to win races like Roubaix or Flanders. But it’s something nice on the side that has real value.’

It’s hard to square the pain and chaos of Van Avermaet’s favourite Classics races with the bucolic bliss of his home life in Belgium.

His garden looks out onto a field where cows lazily chew the grass. As we talk, a robotic lawnmower quietly trundles around his garden, weaving between the paddling pool and playhouse of his two-year-old daughter, Fleur.

Gusts of wind rake across the garden. ‘We should form an echelon,’ he suggests, zipping up his jacket against the cold.

Van Avermaet’s close family unit – including his girlfriend Ellen and his father Ronald, a former pro cyclist himself – have played a major part in ensuring he remained resolute during an admirable but frustrating career in which his talent had flickered rather than shone.

Before his flurry of victories in 2017, he had achieved an awkward series of podium finishes at the Tour of Flanders (2014, 2015), Strade Bianche (2015), Paris-Roubaix (2015) and Gent-Wevelgem (2013).

Missing out on those elusive major victories was hard to accept.

‘It’s a mental thing between winning and losing, because if you finish third or second in a race you can also win it. It’s frustrating.

‘You feel you have it in you but it never comes out. I had the feeling that I was as strong as the others but I was never the big star in the picture.

‘I always kept my belief that one day it would happen.

‘At first, I would get frustrated that I didn’t win, but over time you think second in Flanders or Roubaix is a result a lot of people would love.

‘It added something to me and made me want to win even more. With a bit more confidence and strength it all came together this year.’

Setting goals

Van Avermaet was born into a passionate cycling family and grew up close to his current home in Flanders. ‘I was named after Greg LeMond because my father was a fan. LeMond was the first American to come to Europe and ride at a high level, win the Tour and become World Champion, so my father liked him.

‘I remember we went to the Tour de France on vacation and saw Alpe d’Huez. When I was six years old I was riding around in the garden, making little cyclocross rides, putting up barriers and hopping over a root or something.’

But his is not the familiar tale of a young cycling fan desperate to become a pro. The young Van Avermaet was more interested in becoming a goalkeeper.

‘I played football at a pretty good level from the age of six to 12 in a local division, and I joined the youth team of Beveren, who were then a Belgian first division team.

‘Everything was perfect. I was never thinking about becoming a cyclist. I followed races on TV, but I only cycled for fun. When I eventually started racing on the bike, I had to learn skills like turning and riding in a peloton.

‘If you start late like me, at 18, this is what you’re missing.’

The Belgian is confident that this unusual pathway helped him in unexpected ways. A versatile rider who can climb, sprint and last he distance, he fuses stamina with explosive power – a vital combination in the Classics.

‘That versatility came naturally because I did goalkeeper training, which was very explosive, so I was training hard with short and intense efforts.

‘I didn’t have to run because I was in goal but I was still one of the best runners too. So I had a bit of both – stamina and speed – and that has helped me. In longer races I can come alive after 200km and finish it off. That has always been inside me.’

Natural talent

Although Van Avermaet initially preferred football – and is friends with Belgian players such as Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois and Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen – his passion for cycling endured.

‘I was a big fan of Peter Van Petegem and Johan Museeuw because they were good in the Classics, which are the most important races in Belgium,’ he says.

‘I liked George Hincapie too. He had a nice style on the bike and always came here for the Classics.’

Van Avermaet can remember the precise moment he changed his mind and began to focus on cycling as a potential career.

‘My sister’s boyfriend [Glenn D’Hollander] was riding with Van Petegem at Lotto so there was a little connection there. I remember watching Van Petegem race at the Tour of Flanders in 2003 when I was with my sister.

‘It was the first time I had come that close to the riders. I was about 18 and it was the first real moment when I started wanting to ride myself. I saw the celebration party after he won in Flanders and I thought, “Maybe I can be like that too.”’

Van Avermaet had a natural talent for the sport. ‘Glenn D’Hollander took me out on rides and he said, “Maybe you better start riding in competitions because you’re hurting me a little bit.” So I joined a small team and that’s how I got started.

‘When I was 18 I won a few races. But at under-23 level I won a lot of races, 12 races a year almost.

‘I never had high goals. I was just enjoying myself. But then I got offered a contract [with the Predictor-Lotto team] so in only my third year of cycling I was racing with the professionals.’

His rapid rise brought great expectations in a country besotted with cycling. ‘I won five races in my first year, including a stage in the Tour of Qatar, but then came even more pressure because people think you will become the next Greg LeMond or win the Tour of Flanders. In Belgium people follow you in the news all the time.’

His breakthrough year came in 2008 when he won the points jersey at the Vuelta a España in his first Grand Tour, aged just 23. ‘I reached a high level really fast so I could imagine myself in a few years, aged 25, winning a big Classic and having a big career.

‘But things went slower. I took time to mature. I was always making progress but it wasn’t always seen in my results. I was eighth in Flanders in 2008 and I thought I would win it one day, but I still haven’t.

‘So it has been a long time and a lot of work, but maybe that is why I enjoy it. Guys like Tom Boonen were winning everything at 25 and it can be hard to maintain that level. With me it was a slower journey to the top, but finally I am where I want to be.’

Tour dreams

Van Avermaet’s first taste of the glamour of the Tour de France came in 2009, but it was a disappointing experience.

‘I was mixing myself up in sprints but I never had a chance to win a stage. I arrived in Paris without ever being in the first line of racing. I skipped a few Tours and came back in 2014 when it was in Yorkshire.

‘From that moment I started loving the Tour again. I finished second in Sheffield, behind Vincenzo Nibali, and a few times I was close to the yellow
jersey and stage wins.’

His first Tour stage win came the following year, on a 198.5km medium mountain stage from Muret to Rodez. ‘When I beat Sagan in the sprint, that was the moment I took a big step from being a good rider to a top rider.

‘Suddenly everything seemed possible. I had made the difference between being second or third and winning. It was a hard sprint, full gas, and I did everything wrong but somehow I won.’

Van Avermaet’s Tour preparations had been hampered by accusations of doping. In April 2015 the Belgian cycling authorities requested a two-year ban after accusing him of using the cortisone Diprophos and a fortified baby medication called Vaminolact.

But within a month he had been exonerated, having reportedly proved that he had a prescription for the cortisone to treat a heel problem and had never used Vaminolact.

‘It was one of the hardest periods of my life. I had a child coming. I had bought a house. When they questioned me I had to have a hard mentality to deal with it.

‘The Belgian press were on it like crazy. But I knew I had done nothing wrong and I always said everything would be cleared and I would be racing again. That’s what kept me going. I think it made me stronger in the head.’

In 2016 Van Avermaet returned to the Tour, winning Stage 5, a 216km medium mountain stage from Limoges to Le Lioran, and claiming the yellow jersey for three days.

‘The race was open because the GC guys didn’t want to throw their cards on the table so early, so it was a good opportunity to be in the break.

‘I was just riding full gas. Thomas [De Gendt, of Lotto Soudal] was with me in the break and he said, “Are you going to ride the whole day like this?” I just said, “Yeah, probably.”

‘I broke away by myself for the last 17km. I loved those three days in yellow so much.’

Road to Rio

Ahead of the Rio 2016 Road Race, the Belgian’s main goal was to silence his dad: ‘My father went to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and he was always joking that I was not better than him because I had never really been to the Olympics.

‘I went to London 2012 but it wasn’t great for me so I decided next time I would give it my all.’

At the end of the 237.5km course, he outfought Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark and Rafal Majka of Poland in the final sprint along Copacabana beach to claim gold.

‘I had a bit of luck because Nibali and the other climbers crashed earlier, but that is cycling. In the last few kilometres it was more about not failing.

‘I thought, “It’s not possible that I’m not going to do it. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”’

His celebrations were not exactly riotous: ‘We all went to a restaurant for dinner. To be honest I was really tired.

‘The next morning I just lay in bed, but it was a big achievement for me. A few days afterwards I went to see some other sports like swimming and tennis.

‘I just walked into the swimming area. If I had brought my swimming trunks with me I could have jumped into the pool. Nobody checked me.’

Being number one

With the wind picking up in the Van Avermaet garden, we move inside to his Scandinavian-style living room where he points out the gold trident-shaped trophy he won at Tirreno-Adriatico last year. ‘It’s definitely the coolest trophy,’ he says.

The Belgian’s stunning success this year is even more remarkable given that he broke his ankle in November. ‘I was out for one month but maybe it helped me to be fresher.

‘I started this year in Valencia and Oman where my results were good but not super, then things came together at Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Roubaix.’

His victory at Paris-Roubaix required a heroic fightback after he suffered a broken derailleur with 100km to go.

‘There was a bit of stress but I kept believing I could come back. Roubaix is a race where you can be far back but still make it. I knew I could win in the sprint [out of a group of five, including Zdenek Stybar and Sebastian Langeveld] and I did.

‘We had a party because it was a big victory for BMC too – the first Monument for them and for me.’

Buoyed by his stellar form, he is now focusing on stage victories at the Tour. ‘Some days are mountains and sprints, but something in between is good for me.

‘A rider like me has to go to the Tour. I will never beat Froome in a mountain climb but I have to be at the Tour as it gives me value as a rider.’

This year’s World Road Race Championships in Bergen has also grabbed his attention. ‘Richmond [Virginia, in 2015] was a big chance for me as it was a course with cobble stones and short climbs, but I messed it up.

‘It’s another good course for a Classics rider this year. I think over 260km I am one of the fastest so I may not be the favourite but I have a good chance.’

Van Avermaet admits that he doesn’t keep all his jerseys and trophies but there is one race jersey that he would love to frame on his wall.

‘Flanders is the most important goal for my career. For my style of riding, it is one of the easiest races to win but I have never managed it so far.

‘It has to happen one year. I thought it would be this year but I will have to wait. I would like to win Amstel or Liège-Bastogne-Liège too but they are not on the big list.

‘Flanders is the one I am chasing. I know now that if I wait for the right time, it will come.’

Greg Van Avermaet on...

…His first bike

‘My first road bike was a blue Giacomelli. I later got a GT bike when I started racing. But my first ever bike was a Concorde when I was six or seven years old. It had a good handle on it so my dad could push me in the right direction and I was away.’

…Belgian fans

‘If you are a cyclist people grab you and take your picture. Sometimes it’s nice because you know people enjoy it but sometimes when you just want to be alone with the family it can be hard. But for the moment people leave me alone unless I stop for dinner.’

…Family

‘It has always been my strongest point to go home and be with my family and have a moment to relax without people screaming my name. Cycling is my passion but here I can come back to a place where I can be myself.’

…Hobbies

‘I always try to go to one football game in England every year. It’s getting easier because after a few victories people see me as more important so I can get tickets! My other passion is my Vespa. I have been riding it less since Fleur was born but one day we can ride it together.’

…Grand Tours

‘I will never win the Tour de France but I can get stage wins. The Giro is hard to combine with the Classics because it is in my rest period. The Vuelta I will do a few times in the future but for the moment I am focusing on the Tour because it is the biggest race in the world.’

GVA's best bits

Belgium's world number one picks out three career highlights

2016 Tour de France

‘Winning Stage 5 meant I had the yellow jersey for three days. You feel this great responsibility when you wear it. We are all still like kids and the yellow is a kind of gift – the nicest gift you can have as a cyclist.’

2016 Olympic Road Race

‘I know already that being Olympic champion is going to be the highest achievement of my career. Paris-Roubaix is cool but the Olympics will always be the biggest memory and I enjoyed every minute of it.’

2017 Paris-Roubaix

‘I was pleased to see how much I had learned. I was following other riders more than I had done in Flanders earlier in the year and I put in my efforts when I needed to. That made the difference and I finally got the Monument I wanted.’

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