Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) aims for a series of precious cobbled classics, starting tomorrow with the E3 Harelbeke in Belgium, and refuses to waste time elsewhere despite his increased popularity.
Since his gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, and Tour de France stage win and yellow jersey last year, Belgian media has requested significant time from its star. He often says ‘no’ to keep on track for the northern classics.
During a quiet moment in the Tour of Oman last month, he sat down in the hotel’s lobby with Cycling Weekly and a couple of other journalists to explain.
“My career was always up up up, but now I think there was a jump from pretty popular to having a lot of things to do,” Van Avermaet said.
“Belgium is a cycling country so there are a lot of things that come through: TV, cooking programmes and all this stuff, crazy stuff. They ask you for everything in Belgium.
“Cooking programmes? This kind of thing I don’t do. I’d like to do it after my career but now I have to be focused a little bit on my career. These are my best years and I don’t want to waste my time doing this kind of stuff.”
Van Avermaet kicked off his season by helping BMC Racing win the Volta a Valencia team time trail. He wore the leader’s jersey for a couple of days after.
Since then, he has been going full-speed towards these important cobbled classics. In the opening Belgian weekend, he won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad ahead of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). In Italy, he placed second in Strade Bianche, raced Tirreno-Adriatico and led BMC in Milan-San Remo on Saturday.
Last year, he had crashed and fractured his collarbone in the Tour of Flanders when he was the top favourite to win. However, he more than made up for it with the Tour and the Olympics.
“They always want to know all about the Olympics, if it changed my life or didn’t change my life. It always comes back to Rio, which is normal because it’s my biggest victory. And it’s a nice thing to talk about,” he added.
“I remember this day also as the nicest day in my cycling career, it was a really important victory. And if I could choose one, it’s something special to be Olympic champion.”
Van Avermaet notes how football and cycling dominate the airwaves at home in Belgium. In this period, cycling is number one.
Top newspapers in Flanders like Het Nieuwsblad or Het Laatste Nieuws news feature five to six pages of cycling coverage a day. The main focus is on Tom Boonen (Quick Step Floors), who retires after Paris-Roubaix, or on ‘Golden Greg’.
After Milan-San Remo, Het Nieuwsblad ran an article with the headline “Belgians invisible in final”. Boonen’s work, of course, did allow his French team-mate Julian Alaphilippe to escape with Sagan and eventual winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky). It underlines the attention the media gives and coverage the cyclists receive, both positive and critical.
“There are always a lot of media around in Belgium, a lot of journalists and attention. I think we have to appreciate this, it’s nice to have so much attention in our country,” Van Avermaet said.
“It’s good that Boonen takes a little bit more of the attention. For sure they will criticise me also.”