Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet: ‘Winning gold is one of the best feelings, but the Tour of Flanders would top the lot’
Belgian talks Rio success, reduced pelotons and Classics ambitions
Unlike the UCI Road World Championships or Tour de France, the chance to become Olympic road race champion only comes around once every four years. Last month, Greg van Avermaet joined the select band of riders to take home gold, a victory he described as the ‘biggest win of my career’, but the Belgian is not resting on his laurels.
In what was arguably one of the season’s most exciting races, Classics specialist Van Avermaet managed to defy the talented field of climbers to become one of only two active riders to carry the accolade of Olympic road race champion.
The Belgian has really had the Midas touch this summer adding his gold medal to a two-day stint in the yellow jersey after a stage win at this year’s Tour de France, making this the BMC Racing rider’s most successful season to date.
The Olympic Road Race was once seen as a race riders failed to take seriously, acting as an inconvenience to their usual race program. Yet, the most recent champion considers this as his biggest victory, and a race the biggest riders now target.
Being one of two just Belgians to take gold in Rio – Nafi Thiam, who beat Jessica Ennis-Hill to gold in the heptathlon was the other – Van Avermaet has now secured his name as one of Belgium’s leading sports stars while also fulfilling his father’s dream.
Preparation and pacing
“Before, cycling in the Olympics was something you had to do but now it’s getting bigger and it something I have always wanted to do," he said. “You speak to athletes who have worked for four years to compete, and you get the chance to represent your country and you have to respect the Games.
“Also, my dad went to the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and for him it was the highlight of his career. For me it was highlight just to participate. Then in the final kilometre I realised I had a chance and then you win gold and it is one of the best feelings."
Victory in Rio was far from expected for the Flandrian rider, with most expecting GC riders and climbers like Chris Froome and Alejandro Valverde to dominate the race.
Even during the race the 31-year-old admitted he thought the parcours would be too difficult, but Van Avermaet paced his ride to perfection – setting his own tempo on the climbs and closing the gaps on the descents and flats. The form that saw him solo to stage five victory at this year’s Tour de France helped him seize a victory that surprised even himself.
“I was scared because the parcours was not for me and I knew it would be hard to beat the real climbers," he admitted. “[But] I knew it was one day and I could ride faster and go over my limit.
“My plan was to get in an early move and it was a good strategy. The route did not suit me but I just believed in myself."
The Belgian attributed some of his success at the Olympics to the failings of his rivals too. Many of his closest rivals in Rio were key domestiques at the Tour de France, expending energy deep into the three-week stage race, unlike Van Avermaet who left the Tour with fresher legs.
He explained: “I only focused on a few days at the Tour and did not go so deep and managed to recover well. I also came out the Tour lighter than usual and in good shape. I had a really strong day and managed to climb with the best."
However, he also played down the absence of world champion Peter Sagan as a deciding factor to his gold medal success.
“He had a big chance but sometimes you have to make a decision," Van Avermaet stated. “If he had won gold in the mountain biking, nobody would be talking about it. Plus, he helped give MTB more attention which is a good thing for cycling."
Less means more?
One thing many viewers took away from the Olympic Road Race was how exciting racing could be with smaller teams and pelotons. The biggest teams at Rio contained just five riders, meaning the race was less controlled and which lent itself to a more attacking style of racing. The BMC Racing man believes this played into his hands.
“I think races with less riders are better for me as there is more chance to attack," he enthused. “When you have nine riders you can control the race but smaller teams make the race more open and more attractive to watch."
So could we soon be seeing smaller pelotons at races like the Tour de France? Van Avermaet doesn’t see why not.
“We could try smaller teams in one week races like Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico and see how the peloton reacts," he said. “The Grand Tours could have seven riders and one day races have six. It would help now there are more World Tour races – some teams only have 25 riders and it will help teams cover the whole programme."
So what now for the Olympic champion and Tour de France stage winner? Even with this year’s stellar success, the Belgian is hungry to add another of cycling’s biggest one-day prizes to his palmares: the Tour of Flanders.
As a Flandrian himself, the race passes through his home region and – having finished second in 2014 and third in 2015 – van Avermaet admits victory there, in a race he left in tears earlier this year after breaking his collarbone, would top everything he has achieved in pro cycling to date.
“If I could do one thing in my career it would be to win a big classic and Flanders is still [to me] the most important race. I’ve been close, getting on the podium, but I have more years ahead of me and I have it in me. Prepare well and one day it may come."
It is a measure of the man that, even after victory on some of cycling’s biggest stages, he is eager for more. Victory at the Tour and Olympics may satisfy for now, but the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix remain the real goal.