Until eight months ago, Belgian cyclist Greg Van Avermaet’s legacy was that of a nice guy who rode the cobbles well, figured in the finales of most major races, and was pathologically incapable of winning races. All Van Avermaet had to show for a decade of contesting cycling’s one-day monument classic was ten top-10 placings and the odd stage-race win here and there. It was a familiar scene: Van Avermaet would approach the finish line in ideal position then somehow bone it at the last second. Winning any bike race is crushingly difficult; it seemed for ten years that Van Avermaet’s legacy would be a monument to this fact.
However, Van Avermaet has looked like a fundamentally different rider since he dusted Jakob Fuglsang and won Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in August. The second-place artist broke his hex in the most emphatic and public way possible, and now he’s cleaning up. Not only did he win the right to rock a blinged-out all-gold-everything bicycle like his teammate Sammy Sanchez, he’s eked out a bit of terrifying form that somehow has not subsided in the eight months since he won gold.
Van Avermaet began his season with a bang by outsprinting cycling demigod Peter Sagan to claim Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He then made the podium in Siena at Strade Bianche before returning to Belgium to whoop on everyone at E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. He did not figure in the finish at Milan-San Remo, but he was always targeting the cobbled classic of the north. Van Avermaet won the bunch sprint for second at the Tour of Flanders behind Phillipe Gilbert, and came into Paris-Roubaix, the greatest and most awe-inspiring one-day race in cycling, on a mission.
On paper, Van Avermaet is everything you want in a classics rider. He’s got the support of a pair of horses in Alessandro De Marchi and Daniel Oss and he has an uncanny nose for sussing out the right move. Put him in a small group, and he can pull them away from a chasing pack. Put him on the road alone, and he’ll ride a fierce time trial. Most importantly, Van Avermaet packs a nasty sprint finish. Bike racing takes all of these traits, but it also requires a healthy dollop of luck.
No race embodies this harsh truth more so than Paris-Roubaix. The Hell of the North is an inhospitable 257 km jaunt across the broken, cobbled roads of northern France. The mashed-up cobbles will break your bike with no warning, and if you get caught out behind one of the many crashes endemic to the race, you’re fucked. Good bike racers win sometimes, help their teammates out and take their chances when they come. Great racers win big races and warp the texture of those races with their mere presence. Only the very best win Paris-Roubaix, whether through strength, will, or luck.
Van Avermaet had plenty of problems in the early going today, falling onto his left shoulder then suffering another mechanical issue with about 100 km left. He recovered, and joined what looked the decisive break. However, he had Sagan for company, and the Slovakian world champion is perhaps the best cyclist riding today. But Sagan didn’t last long, as his day was sunk by a cruel puncture 32 km out. Van Avermaet pushed on, eventually causing the final split and pulling Zdenek Stybar and Sebastian Langeveld along with him. Stybar didn’t want to work with Van Avermaet, but the BMC rider played his cards perfectly and goaded Stybar into pulling his weight.
As they entered the velodrome, all three riders stood up and watched each other. History was there for the taking, but nobody wants to be the dumbass who leads the sprint out for your rival. Suddenly, the splintered remnants of the earlier break caught up with them. Was GVA’s caginess going to cost him his best shot at winning Paris-Roubaix?
As it turns out: Hell no. Stybar overtook a gassed-out rider and led the sprint through the final corner of the velodrome, but the finishing punch that Van Avermaet has been honing for a year carried him through for a surprisingly easy win. Paris-Roubaix is as chaotic and messy a race as exists in the professional cycling peloton, and Van Avermaet looked cool and under control for most of the business end of the race. The well-deserved victory was a capstone to the stunning second act of his career.