In 1971, the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, put together the greatest season of all time. He won the Tour de France, the world championships, three monuments, and took 45 percent of the races he started. That figure is incredible, and nobody ever has or ever will touch it, but he still lost more than he won. That is the cruel truth of cycling, where even the best, most deserving riders lose more often than they win. Nobody in the current pro peloton knows this better than Greg Van Avermaet, who took the biggest win of his career and won the Olympic gold medal this morning.
The Belgian is one of the best one-day classics specialists in the world. He can outclimb almost every sprinter, and outsprint almost every climber. He has the talent and racing chops to win Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders, but he’s managed to make a (very excellent) career out of almost winning. He’s finished in the top-10 eight times at a monument classic, and has never won. Last season, he finished in the top-20 in every classic he started, got himself onto four podiums, but never won a one-day race. In 2014, he got the drop on Ian Stannard at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but lost by a hair. A month later, he got caught at the front of the group at the Tour of Flanders, and he allowed Fabian Cancellara to slip out and take the sprint.
Today, he made no such mistakes. The road race was defined, more than anything, by crashes and other fuckups. Iranian cyclist Samad Pourseyedi crashed on the opening circuits, then the second set of circuits claimed Richie Porte, Sergio Henao, and Vincenzo Nibali. Henao, Nibali, and Rafal Majka were clear of a fractured chasing group on the final descent of the race, when the Italian and Colombian fell right in front of Majka, who managed to avoid them. After Chris Froome melted away and the survivors behind Majka squabbled amongst themselves, it appeared that the only legit racing would be for second.
But Danish rider Jakob Fuglsang leapt away from the chasing group, taking Van Avermaet with him. The two worked together and reeled in Majka. Van Avermaet was clearly the best sprinter out of the three, but he took no chances, picking his spot perfectly and easily shredding Fuglsang after Majka stood up and coasted in for bronze.
Winning a monument or a world championship is one thing, but an Olympic gold medal is one of the most coveted prizes in the pro peloton. The course that Van Avermaet won on was probably the most difficult parcours of any professional cycling race this decade. The heat claimed several riders, as did the cobbles, the treacherous descents, and the pitchy climbs. Van Avermaet was the only non-climber to survive the selection, and he benefitted from Britain and Spain tussling to control the race, which they only could do intermittently.
Most importantly, he now gets to show out and wear gold shit for four whole years. After Sammy Sanchez won in Beijing, he rode an ostentatious-as-hell gold bike until the London Games. Sadly, the retiring Alexander Vinokourov won in London, so the peloton was bereft of his insane gold regalia, save for one race. GVA is a worthy champion, experienced enough in near misses to savor the gold medal, but still lively enough to pick up some more wins in the coming years.
This isn’t going to change his luck completely, and no matter how unburdened he rides from here on out, he won’t ever eclipse 45 percent and overcome the fundamental odds of cycling. But nobody ever will, and a gold medal is fine validation for a career full of prominent second places.