Greg Van Avermaet believes that a new team, a change of kit and a fundamental shift from the English-speaking culture of CCC could help refresh his career after joining AG2R Citroën on a three-year deal.
The 35-year-old, who will once again make the Classics, Tour de France, Olympics, and Worlds the main objectives of his season, has also fully recovered from the crash and serious injury that ended his season at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in October and left him with fractured ribs and vertebrae.
“I feel really well now. It took quite a while to recover from the crash in Liège because it was a big one. I tried to ride for Flanders but in the end, it was a good idea not to do it, I think, because I wasn’t 100 per cent. I felt the injury until eight weeks after my crash, and there was some pain, but now for the moment, everything is fine. I can train as well as possible and there’s no pain, so I’m 100 per cent recovered,” Van Avermaet told an online gathering of journalists after his new team unveiled their 2021 kit on Thursday.
The French squad have gone through a major overhaul in the last few months and also changed their emphasis from a stage racing team that dabbled in the Classics to a fully-fledged one-day squad with possible potential in multiple-day events. Out has gone Romain Bardet and his cadre of climbers, with Van Avermaet and ten other riders joining the fray. Existing Classics leader Oliver Naesen has been joined by Van Avermaet, Bob Jungels, Gijs Van Hoecke and Michael Schär, creating a strong core.
“I think that we have a really good team. We made 11 changes this year at AG2R, and that’s a big change, but we have a good strong Classics team next to me and we had that already. I think that Schär, Van Hoecke and I can make some more adjustments to make it even stronger with the other riders who have joined,” Van Avermaet said. “With this line-up, we can match the other good teams. If we’re on our highest level then we can bring some good results in the Classics, which are now the main goals for the team.”
With Van Avermaet’s 36th birthday not too far on the horizon, some team managers might have felt that the Olympic champion might have passed his best, but the Belgian’s arrival on the team stems from the fact that CCC folded due to financial pressure and because of the confidence AG2R had in him during the negotiation period. They saw a rider who, despite not winning a race in 2021, was still highly competitive and consistent, with a flurry of top-ten finishes this year that included several top-five rides in the Tour de France.
“The most important point was the confidence they had in me from the first time that I talked with Vincent Lavenu about how they see my future and how they see their future,” Van Avermaet said.
“They had that confidence in me, even though I have to say that I’m not the youngest anymore. They wanted to push me more, and they still believe in me and that I can still have a big victory. That for me was the most important.”
Yet 2021 represents a fundamental shift for Van Avermaet. While he will still target the same races during the campaign, next year will be his first season away from the bubble at Continuum Sports – the management company that ran both CCC Team and BMC Racing. Van Avermaet joined that entity back in 2011 and enjoyed the best years of his career there. The move to AG2R, he says, provides a new stimulus and environment.
“It’s a bit strange. I remember the first time I went to Como, I think [to link up with BMC – ed.] and having all the meetings in English and now all the meetings are in French and I feel a bit the same. My French isn’t so great but I’m trying my best.
“I had a great time with Jim and we had a good dinner together at the end of the year, when it was still possible, to end the story. I’m super motivated to open a new book and to hopefully write some good pages in it. At my age, it could be good to get out of my comfort zone, as they say now, and see some new things.”
Another shift is that until the arrival of Matteo Trentin at CCC at the start of this year, Van Avermaet has been the sole Classics leader on teams he has raced with for several years. That changes at Lavenu’s team and while the pressures and expectations will be high, Van Avermaet thinks that the collective strength within the squad will help when it comes to competing for wins in the Classics and the Tour.
“I think we’ll have to work well together. That’s the most important point. We have such a strong generation coming up, so we know it won’t be easy to win races. With our strength together we can beat a lot of guys. That’s the only solution to win the races.
“Normally the plan is to go Classics, Tour de France which is really important for the team, and then Olympics and Worlds. It will be a challenging year but we’ll see how it works out. I hope to be as good as possible but those are my main goals for the season, and the Worlds in Belgium is a big deal for us. The course in Tokyo is difficult but so was Rio. I have the same feeling about Tokyo. It’s a very difficult parcours but after the Tour I’ve always very good legs in the mountains or a hilly parcours and I hope that this preparation can help me again to have a good result.”
A team change isn’t the only adjustment that’s been made either. The revised calendar due to the lockdown in 2020 meant that most riders raced until late October or early November. While Van Avermaet’s season was cut short by a crash and he has had more of a traditional off-season, he doesn’t think that the late running of the calendar will affect how riders prepare for or race during the Spring Classics next season.
“I think it will be similar to the other years before because now we have that structure with the Classics first, then Tour de France, Olympics and then Worlds. Everyone is used to this and I don’t think that this year will affect the results, and as we saw this year, only the big riders won the races. Wout van Aert was on a high level, Alaphilippe was there, and Van der Poel too. The biggest talents can always adjust themselves in the right way and perform at a high level.”