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Flanders favorite Van Avermaet out of E3 with illness

HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Greg Van Avermaet is staying at BMC Racing’s team hotel with digestive problems instead of racing Friday’s E3 Harelbeke, a race he was favored to win. The team says it was a precautionary measure because the Belgium’s goal is winning next Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).

One hour before the race began in a cloudy and damp Harelbeke, just 50 or so miles west of Brussels, BMC sent out a message: “Illness rules Van Avermaet out of E3 Harelbeke.” Doubts began to circle around the small Flemish town about whether the country’s new star would be completely knocked out of the classics.

Italian Fabio Baldato, the sport director most closely linked to Van Avermaet, tried to ease concern while his seven other riders climbed on their red and black bikes and headed to the start line.

“We need to go for the win with Greg, not just to start him to see if he’s good or not good,” Baldato said. “I hope that he will already be back for Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. This was a safety measure, for him not to go too deep for these races. Flanders is the main objective.”

The team doctor said Van Avermaet came down with “digestive problems” overnight.

“I don’t feel 100 percent. I’ve had some stomach problems and I didn’t have a great night so I think the best decision is to not ride today and focus on Gent-Wevelgem and Ronde Van Vlaanderen,” Van Avermaet said in a press release.

“I was feeling good [Thursday] when we trained and still during the press conference in the afternoon. I didn’t have any appetite last night and that’s when I started to feel unwell. When your body is telling you something, you have to listen to it.”

Added Baldato: “He had a bad feeling last night before going to sleep, bad digestion. He didn’t have a good night. It doesn’t look like an infection or fever, but this morning, he was still bad with his stomach and digestion problems. We didn’t want to risk it.”

The 30-year-old clicked into gear with a stage win in the Tour de France ahead of Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan in 2015. Last month, he won Belgium’s opening classic Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He has only improved with the big monuments approaching; he earned a smart stage victory in Tirreno-Adriatico that helped him to the overall title.

With Etixx – Quick-Step’s Tom Boonen still recovering from a head injury suffered in a crash last year, Belgians now look to Van Avermaet to carry the torch. Their concern is that he will not be ready for Flanders, Belgian cycling’s equivalent to the Super Bowl. Baldato sees no reason to worry.

“He did Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday and if he can do Gent-Wevelgem, he’s also good,” Baldato said. “It’s not a problem. His level is high.”

Baldato is unsure if Van Avermaet will train Friday or use the day to rest up and try to recover. For the moment, Baldato’s attention is on the E3 Harelbeke.

“I still have five to six guys to be there in the final,” Baldato said. “It’s a race where you can take an opportunity.”