You know how some riders, the first time you see them, you know they’re something different? Next week, the last of Tom Boonen’s professional career (I need a moment...) you will hear a few stories about the day he exploded onto the world consciousness at Paris-Roubaix in 2002, all of 21 years old, and became a consensus pick to be the next big Classics star. He fulfilled that promise in short order and spent the next decade jousting with another overnight sensation, Fabian Cancellara. The successors to that legendary duo are selected to be Peter Sagan -- a star by age 21 or so — as well as maybe Alexander Kristoff (winning in Belgium by 25), or Tiesj Benoot (still just 23), or Sep Vanmarcke (winning by age 24). At the very top level of the hypercompetitive classics field, stars go shooting right away, or not at all.
Yet with the exception of Sagan none of these guys are a favorite to win Sunday. That status rests squarely on the calm, capable shoulders of Greg Van Avermaet, the BMC captain, who took his time ascending each and every step of the ladder to the top level of success. The 31-year-old from Lokeren, on the old road from Gent to Antwerp, overcame a nearly-debilitating love of and talent for soccer goalkeeping to fulfill his destiny of becoming a professional cyclist, like his father and grandfather, but in the last year or so he’s ascended to something few thought of as his destiny: becoming a champion.
In a way his rise is meteoric from a situation that is almost impossible to fathom: he started racing his bike at age 19. An age at which Sagan had tuned pro, at which Boonen was winning the U23 Paris-Tours, Van Avermaet was just beginning to take it seriously. Growing up in the sport means he almost certainly had some innate knowledge baked into him regarding technique, strategy and training, but still. Just as remarkably, within two years he had joined the Bodysol-Win for Life-Jong Vlaanderen program, and when the wins (including U23 Belgian champion) came steadily rolling in, by 2007 he had a pro deal with Predictor Lotto.
In 2007 Boonen was atop the world, and he liked to start his season off on a high note by bagging some stages (and maybe the GC) at the Tour of Qatar. He did just that thanks to a TTT and two sprint wins, but on stage 5 it was Van Avermaet, making his pro debut, who got in a breakaway that was allowed to succeed, and out-kicked Marcel Sieberg for a stage victory.
It was a remarkable achievement, one you could dismiss by saying that the peloton had let them off the leash and someone of the five riders had to win. But in hindsight maybe it was a sign of things to come: tactical aggression, strength, and the finishing kick to take the win, the three most important tools in the Van Avermaet toolbox now.
Van Avermaet had his ups and downs at Lotto, including a second season in 2008 where he took third in E3 (again from a break), eighth in Flanders in his second try and first finish, plus stage victories in the Ronde van Belgie, Tour de Wallonia, Tour de l’Ain and Vuelta a Espana — the last one another win from a selection and one that earned him the points jersey in Madrid. With Boonen sidelined Van Avermaet was voted Flandrien of the Year. But this was the end of his dizzying rise, as the last two years of his Lotto career went without victories, though enough top ten finishes in important races (Omloop, Driedaagse, BKs, Brabantse Pijl) to let us know there wasn’t anything seriously wrong.
Following the 2010 season he joined a suddenly classics-focused BMC team that had scooped up George Hincapie and Markus Burghardt from a tenuous HTC team, plus cobbles warhorse and Flanders winner Alessandro Ballan. It was a team loaded with face cards but no aces, but it was also not the team of Philippe Gilbert, who had become a mega-star at Lotto and bagged third in the 2010 Ronde van Vlaanderen, making him the team’s clear leader for the cobbled classics. Van Avermaet was free to race for himself, and while his first spring in red and black was nothing memorable, a victory in Paris-Tours where he got free with Marco Marcato and broke the Italian in the final 500 meters for his first huge classic success.
Van Avermaet had proven himself worthy of a leadership role on a top classics team, but by then he knew that leadership would be shared in the biggest races, at best, as BMC had inked Gilbert as its leader for the 2012 season. To their credit Lotto had shifted Gilbert to the Ardennes Classics which were a bit better suited to his climbing ability (and the rest is history) prior to his joining BMC, and BMC stuck to that plan, but even without looking it up I can certainly recall thinking that Gilbert’s presence had a detrimental effect on Van Avermaet’s leadership status at BMC, a situation that dragged on for five seasons. In 2015 it came to a bit of a head as Gilbert had re-oriented himself to the cobbles, and he and Van Avermaet griped a bit to the press about who was really the leader, but given that Van Avermaet’s response was to rise to third place in both Flanders and Roubaix that year, even that alleged tension seems to have worked in his favor. Gilbert may have eroded the perception of Van Avermaet as a leader, but did little to prevent Van Avermaet from taking his trademark initiative on the bike.
In the end, Gilbert’s cobbles career never really took off at BMC, and while it’s experiencing a resurgence at Quick Step, it doesn’t detract from the conclusion that Van Avermaet was their Flanders ace all along. This fact plus undoubtedly some budget concerns caused the team to part with Gilbert and now Van Avermaet is the clear leader, a decision that coincided nicely with him winning the Olympic gold medal and ascending to Belgian superhero status last August.
But something else changed in 2016. While Van Avermaet was steadily climbing the World Tour ranks (24th, then 8th, then 3rd last year) and picking off some nice wins (including a 2015 Tour stage), he lacked the signature home soil win that seemed like his destiny. Until the 2016 Omloop, where he took a painfully long sprint to win from the front group of five riders ahead of Sagan, and becoming a Cobbled Classic winner at last.
Success begat more success, with a strange and shocking win over Sagan at Tirreno-Adriatico (flattened out for the classics guys by some bad weather). He seemed like the potential favorite in Flanders, and fifth in Milano-Sanremo and ninth in Gent-Wevelgem suggested he was maybe keeping his powder dry. But at de Ronde he went down in a horrible wreck with four of his teammates, breaking his collarbone and taking the steam out of his rise once again. Maybe it was all just a brief flash in the pan. The Olympics said otherwise, however.
Now he’s back, only better than ever. Finishing off one classic after another, even though his strategy and his prominence is known to all, including Sagan. Now he seems to have even sharper instincts, even stronger ambitions, and an even more reliable sprint. It’s strange to discover this at age 31, but maybe it’s a little less strange for a rider to reach this level in just his 12th season as a cyclist at any level. All of this is building toward a victory at Flanders and/or Roubaix, and if those results go missing then perhaps we will say he’s hit his ceiling, but just getting to the status of clear Flanders favorite is an incredible feat and one that is won over time, through endless improvement, on one schedule or another.
This is Greg Van Avermaet’s time. You can quibble with how long it took the train to reach the station, but it’s here. And it’s ready to roll.