The BMC rider is poised to accomplish a legendary Classics feat even Tom Boonen never managed. – By Whit Yost
After this Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, Belgium will say goodbye to Quick-Step Floor’s Tom Boonen, one of the greatest cobbled Classics riders of his generation and the reigning king of Belgian cycling. Despite being only 36 years old, Boonen has decided to put an end to his 15-year career, but not before one last attempt to win the cobbled “Hell of the North” for a record fifth time.
But while Boonen enters this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders thinking more about winning his fifth Roubaix, his compatriot, Greg Van Avermaet of BMC, has his heart set on taking his first Tour of Flanders. In doing so, the 31-year-old rider would continue a streak that even Boonen himself never managed to pull-off.
Last Sunday, Van Avermaet became the first rider to win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the E3 Harelbeke, and Ghent-Wevelgem in one season, making him the top favorite for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders and perhaps more importantly, the rider most likely to fill the Boonen-shaped hole soon to be left in the hearts of Belgium’s passionate cycling fans.
Van Avermaet’s road to becoming a top contender for the Tour of Flanders has not been easy. He turned professional with Predictor-Lotto in 2007 after spending the latter part of 2006 as an apprentice with the Belgian squad. Despite being only 22 at the start of his first full season as a professional, Van Avermaet won three races as a rookie, an indication of his immense talent. He won a stage at the Tour of Spain in late 2008, but to Belgians, two of Van Avermaet’s results earlier in the season were much more important.
For Belgian cycling fans, the one-day “classic” races of March and early-April constitute the high point of the season. These long, hard races feature the short, steep cobbled climbs of their beloved Flanders, and are often raced in weather that keeps most modern Tour de France contenders at home. Only the strongest riders win these races, events with hard-to-pronounce names like “Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne” and “Dwars Door Vlaanderen.” And of course, many of the riders most suited to these spring Classics come from Belgium.
So to the hundreds of thousands of Belgian fans who line the roads of these races each spring, Van Avermaet’s eighth-place finish in only his second Tour of Flanders—by far the country’s most prestigious event and one of the hardest races in the sport—was a very big deal. And the fact that it came one week after his third-place finish in Harelbeke, a race considered by many to be the final dress rehearsal before the “Ronde van Vlaanderen,” only added more expectations for the rest of the young rider’s career.
At first Van Avermaet struggled to live up to the pressure. It wasn’t until 2012 (his second season with BMC) that he scored another top-10 finish in a spring Classic. More high finishes followed in 2013, including top-10 results in both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and it looked as if Van Avermaet was back on-track.
But cycling is a fickle sport, and Belgian fans are by nature as loving as they are hard to please. After six years as a professional and several high finishes, Van Avermaet had still failed to win a single Classic and people began to associate his name more with near-misses than big wins.
And it’s easy to see why. Van Avermaet was trying to come into his own while men like Boonen and Fabian Cancellara were at the peaks of their illustrious careers. Two of the greatest one-day riders in the history of the sport, Boonen and Cancellara dominated races like Flanders and Roubaix, forcing everyone else into a race for second-place. No wonder Van Avermaet had such a hard time breaking through.
But then came Stage 13 of the 2015 Tour de France. Ending with an uphill sprint in Rodez, the finish was perfect for a rider like Van Avermaet. He took full advantage, defeating Peter Sagan to take what was then the biggest win of his career. He went home a few days later to be with his pregnant wife, but it was clear that a new Van Avermaet had already been born.
Boosted by the confidence that often accompanies a Tour de France stage win, Van Avermaet started 2016 by finally winning his first Classic, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and the General Classification at Italy’s Tirreno-Adriatico, a seven-day stage race that riders often use to prepare for the Classics in late-March and April. After a fifth-place finish in Milan-Sanremo and a ninth-place finish in Ghent-Wevelgem, Belgium dreamed of the nation’s first victory in the Tour of Flanders since Boonen won his third in 2012. But it was never meant to be: Van Avermaet crashed and broke his collarbone midway through the race. Instead it was Sagan who won his first Flanders.
Van Avermaet didn’t lick his wounds for long. Back on the bike at May’s Amgen Tour of California, there were still lots of races in which the Belgian would have an impact. First came Stage 5 of the 2016 Tour de France, a tough ride through France’s hilly Massif Central in which Van Avermaet took both the stage and the yellow jersey as the Tour’s overall leader. But the best was still to come as Van Avermaet shockingly won the Olympic Road Race in Rio on a course that few expected to suit him. Clearly this was no longer a man destined for fourth-place finishes: Right before our eyes, Van Avermaet has become a champion.
Now he is on the verge of something truly historic. In 2012 Boonen won the E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix to complete a “quadruple” that even Belgium’s trappist monks might never have thought possible. But Boonen, who has won almost every cobbled race on the calendar, never won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, positioning Van Avermaet to go one better than the man tied for the record with the most wins in both Flanders and Roubaix history.
If he wins the Tour of Flanders Sunday, Van Avermaet will become the first rider ever to win the Omloop, E3, Ghent-Wevelgem, and the Tour of Flanders in the same season. If he wins in Roubaix one week later, his spring might go down as the greatest in cycling history.
And perhaps more importantly, he’ll allow his nation to breath a collective sigh of relief. After all, it’s not easy to say goodbye to a champion as talented and as likable as Tom Boonen. But in Greg Van Avermaet, they seem to have found a more than suitable replacement.