Greg Van Avermaet: Cycling has always been my passion, it’s never been my work

Belgian rider talks to GCN about his retirement, his move into gravel and undying love for cycling

Clock10:30, Friday 29th March 2024
Greg Van Avermaet is one of Belgium's most popular cyclists of the modern age

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Greg Van Avermaet is one of Belgium's most popular cyclists of the modern age

On a brisk Thursday morning, the bergs throughout Flanders were awash with pro teams reconning Sunday’s routes for the men’s and women’s Tour of Flanders.

Stand at the top of the Oude Kwaremont for long enough, and you’d have witnessed Ineos Grenadiers, Lidl-Trek, Bora-Hansgrohe and every other team scurrying across the cobbles at a conversational but impressive pace.

Dotted among the rank and file from the WorldTour were sprinkles of amateur riders just happy to be out and enjoying a taste of what De Ronde is all about. But look hard and you’ll have spotted Greg Van Avermaet dancing on the pedals as he set the pace for an organised group ride of lucky fans. The intensity or pace might not be the same for the former WorldTour great, but that elegant style and welcoming smile as he recognised the GCN crew at the side of the road was instantly recognisable.

Earlier this month it was confirmed that the Belgian had joined the Team Last Dance, a collective of riders with ambitions of gravel racing at the highest level in 2024. For Van Avermaet, who hung up his WorldTour wheels after a long and illustrious career, the new off-road adventure represented a near-perfect transition between elite WorldTour racing and a so-called, normal life.

“Things are going well. I’m doing this because I still like to ride my bike and because it’s a bit of an in-between thing from professional cycling and retirement,” Van Avermaet told GCN during a catch-up in Belgium this week.

“I didn’t want to stop moving abruptly. In these terms, gravel is perfect because you can stay fit. I think it’s cool to do because it’s something different. It’s hard to say how far I can go because my life isn’t the same these days but I still try and put the kilometres in when I have the time. It’s more about fun than the prestige but I know that once I’m on the start line I want to give it my all.”

Read more: Nothing gold can stay: Greg Van Avermaet on retiring with no regrets

After a 17-year career that included wins in Paris-Roubaix, the Rio Olympic Games, stages of the Tour de France, and two spells in the maillot jaune, life for Van Avermaet is very different following his road racing retirement in 2023. Along with his gravel plans, he’s segwayed into the life of a commentator, picking up work with Belgian broadcaster Sporza. He was at the E3 Saxo Classic last week and will be at the start and finish of Flanders on Sunday as part of the TV operation’s coverage.

Less travelling and racing has also allowed him to spend more time at home with his family, meaning he could enjoy Gent-Wevelgem with the kids for the first-ever time, and fit his gravel race plans around home life too.

“I’m not doing the first race in the UCI Gravel World Series in Austria as we’re on vacation with the kids but I start in Valkenburg later in the year,” he says.

He’ll then embark on a race calendar that will take him to the US for Unbound Gravel, before aiming for the UCI Gravel World Championships on home turf later this year. "I’m going to the US in June for Unbound. It scares me a little because although I’ve never had a problem with endurance, because the more kilometres the better it was for me, but I’m a bit scared of this 325km of gravel riding,” he adds.

“But normally I’ll do Valkenburg and then qualify for the Worlds. Then I’ll do the Traka in Girona, nationals in Belgium, and then Finland. I have a cool programme to do and it’s something different. Mentally it gives me a good vibe with racing and I still need that.”

Read more: Greg Van Avermaet wins gravel triathlon in Spain

Retirement came at the right time

While the future is both bright and exciting for the 38-year-old, it hasn’t come without strain either. Retiring from a career that engulfs your life is never easy. Some professionals find the transition into a new phase of their lives harder than others, and there’s no real support structure in place to help guide pros once they take the leap. Every pro is different, of course, and some are forced into retirement rather than it being a conscious choice of their own but Van Avermaet, while missing certain aspects of his former days, has at least found a healthy transition from one phase of his life to another.

“I miss it a lot because cycling has always been passion, it’s never been my work. Also, retirement was more of a decision from the head than one from the heart because even last year with some less good results, I was still enjoying what I was doing,” he explains.

“It’s a bit strange because you have 17 years part of it, especially in the Classics, where I’ve been good at it. It’s a strange feeling but while I don’t have any days where I’m bored, you never have that same feeling that you get at the end of a race. You know, when you’re totally satisfied or empty. The satisfaction that you have after a race is completely different, and that’s something that you really miss.”

Read more: The top 10 cycling climbs in Flanders

But there are still no regrets. Van Avermaet is confident that he left the WorldTour at the right. Three years at AG2R Citroën had seen his win-rate dip, while a new generation had burst through with the likes of Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar starting to dominate the Spring Classics. Van Avermaet was still competitive and brought a huge back catalogue of experience and calmness to his French team, but the legs were beginning to slow - as they do for all the greats at some point or another.

“It’s hard to say but at 38 or 39 it’s about time. I tried as much as possible over the last few years but the results weren’t really coming. Sometimes it was down to bad luck but before I never really had bad luck so when you get a bit older it’s time to stop. It’s never easy, regardless of whether you’re forced to stop or it’s your own decision. It’s always a big change in life and it’s about adapting to a new life. It’s normal to struggle at times but that’s part of the process that you need to get through. I still think I made the right decision at the right time, and that I didn’t leave it too late.”

In many ways, Van Avermaet hasn’t left at all. He’s still competing - albeit on a slightly lower level - and when the Classics come around each spring he’ll either be working for the Belgian media or giving interviews to the international press that will always recognise him as one of the best riders of his generation. And no matter what happens, he’ll always be on his bike, riding up the Kwaremont one more time with the same passion he’s always had. Retirement or not, that love for cycling will never change.

For more from Flanders, visit our Tour of Flanders guide page.

For the latest news, interviews and analysis from the world of professional cycling, be sure to check out the Racing tab on the GCN website and visit our essential guide to The Spring Classics to stay up to date with all of the action from cycling's most exciting season.

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