Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) says it's not just a case of him versus Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) at the upcoming cobbled Classics, but Sagan against everyone, naming the world champion as the outright favourite.
Van Avermaet, who has had a slower start to the season this year compared to 2017, will be primarily targetting Tour of Flanders victory this year after missing out on the title last year in spite of a spectacular run of form that had seen him win E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem the weekend before.
The Belgian told Het Nieuwsblad (opens in new tab) that it will be "hard to repeat" his double victory at E3 and Ghent, modestly indicating that Sagan is really the man to beat.
Sagan, who has two victories in Ghent-Wevelgem and a victory at the Tour of Flanders from 2016, has cut an increasingly frustrated figure during the Classics, with many riders following in his wheel, marking him and often refusing to work with him.
"He has little to no bad days," Van Avermaet said on Sagan. "He is so complete, he goes everywhere for the win. It's therefore not Peter versus myself, it's mainly Sagan against the rest. And there are a lot of them. Also [Sep] Vanmarcke, [Tiesj] Benoot, [Wout] Van Aert in the races he is riding."
Van Avermaet's dominance last year, which culminated with a maiden Monument victory at Paris-Roubaix, has looked much less assured this year. The 32-year-old is off the mark with a victory, taking a stage at the Tour of Oman, but was unable to feature in the final of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche or Milan-San Remo.
After going on a reconnaissance of the E3 course on Tuesday with his team-mate Stefan Küng, the BMC man says his "condition is there" but places no expectation on repeating last year's double weekend.
"That's hard to repeat, isn't it?" Van Avermaet said.
"That was really out of expectation, a dream that came true. Normally Harelbeke should be better, but in terms of results, Ghent-Wevelgem was slightly better in the past. Still, the condition is there. But my main goal remains the Tour of Flanders, although it is always nice when you end up [with a result] in Harelbeke or Wevelgem. Next Sunday I am really going for it.
"In terms of results [this year], it was not easy. The Strade Bianche was perhaps an off-day because of the cold and the rain.
"In the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad I was at the desired level: not super, but good enough to win. And Saturday [Milan-San Remo] was like every year, this time with a superior [Vincenzo] Nibali.
"The real races start on Friday. "
E3 Harelbeke takes place on Friday March 23 and Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday March 25.
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