CEDAR CITY, Utah (VN) – Greg van Avermaet is a crafty bike racer.
The Belgian has been one of the most consistent riders in spring classics for the past two seasons. In 2013 alone he was fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; sixth at Strade Bianche; third at Gent-Wevelgem; seventh at the Tour of Flanders; fourth at Paris-Roubaix; and sixth at Brabantse Pijl. It was an amazing spring, even if he did go winless.
But taking a downhill sprint, against a field that had only one legitimate chance to bring their sprinters to the line, an ocean away from home? No one saw it coming.
And it was as if no one saw van Avermaet jump away with 700 meters to go in Cedar City. He jettisoned the leadout train of Optum, assembled for their sprinter Eric Young (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), left them in his wake, and had Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) shaking his head at the line.
“You talk with the team about what you’re going to do — are you going to try for the sprint or are you going to attack — but I was waiting and I wanted to see [the circuit] at race speed because in training you don’t feel how hard it is,” van Avermaet said. “When we did it at race speed this first lap, ‘Maybe here I have enough power, I can make a gap and try to hold it.’ There was a small bump up there [at the far side of the circuit], and I think, ‘This is a good moment to do it.’ Maybe you try it 10 times and it works out one time. And today it worked out.”
It’s clear that van Avermaet came to the U.S. with fine form. He won two stages and the overall at the Tour de Wallonie, just prior to crossing the Atlantic.
In Utah, it wasn’t as if he stole this victory through the open window — other teams didn’t so much make a mistake. Rather, he picked the lock and walked in the front door, using skill, and taking a risk, to take the jackpot.
“It wasn’t a finish for me. If it was an uphill finish I would help them [Orica-GreenEdge]. But they came to me and said, ‘Will you help?’ and I said, ‘No, it’s a downhill sprint, I cannot win today.’ It would be a bit stupid to help; sometimes you have to take the risk. We were riding [hard] in Wallonie so you don’t have to tell your teammates every day that they have to ride.”
In a Tour of Utah bulging at the seams with vertical gain, this was the single stage that offered the sprinters any chance of glory. Four-time national champion Freddie Rodriguez (Jelly Belly) was ready to go; so were Young and J.J. Haedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman). Matthews had won in Utah before, taking stage 3 into Salt Lake City last year. But all the sprinters had their locks picked.
“It’s hard when you sort of focus on the first stage and your team works all day and then someone slips away in the final; but that’s racing,” Matthews said. “You can’t win every race. You’ve gotta put faith in your team; my sprint was good in the finish but it wasn’t quite timed properly. There wasn’t much I could really do about it. Greg was just too strong.”
Too strong; too crafty. Van Avermaet walked out the front door with the loot. One out of 10, his odds weren’t great.
“But you have to take a risk in order to win,” he said.