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

The Belgian Classics star discusses the end of his career, his accomplishments, and what riding with the next generation has meant to him

Clock09:31, Saturday 7th October 2023
Greg Van Avermaet won gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Greg Van Avermaet won gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016

In a neat bit of symmetry, Greg Van Avermaet will leave the sport of professional cycling behind on the weekend one week after his long time rival Peter Sagan bowed out.

Even into retirement, the Belgian was hot on the heels of his Slovakian counterpart, with set to ‘Golden Greg’ call time on his career at Paris-Tours on the weekend. While Peter Sagan has garnered most of the end-of-year retirement attention, Greg Van Avermaet’s career should be seen in a very similar light.

While the timing is similar, the two are exiting from stage left in very different ways, just as their careers and personalities have so often dovetailed. While Peter Sagan has been shying away from the spotlight and choosing a race program that avoids most of the big appointments of the late season calendar, we caught up with Van Avermaet after the GP de Québec, where he had played a forward role until the final kilometre.

For the Belgian, unlike Sagan, retirement has not come from a want of passion.

“I still enjoy it, I still like cycling, it's not that I don't like it, I just feel that it's hard to get to that highest level,” Van Avermaet told GCN. “If you've been on the highest level for so long and have to step down, it's hard and also I don't want to overdo it. I am out of contract with AG2R and I am not searching for anything else so I decided after the Classics, which were not that great, that it was enough.

“I can be happy with what I did and I am happy with my decision.”

While Van Avermaet is undoubtedly past his world-beating best, the Belgian has remained around the front of races at times, even winning the small French race Boucles de l'Aulne-Châteaulin this season. For many riders, one win would be enough to encourage them to continue their cycling career. Yet for Van Avermaet, his threshold of performance needed to justify the sacrifice of cycling was just a bit higher.

When Van Avermaet lost his pace in his beloved Classics, he knew it was time to hang up his wheels, regardless of the love he had or success to come.

“It's better to stop in a good way,” Van Avermaet said. “Here I was still really prepared and the last kilometre I am still in good position, but when it kicks you lose a little bit of momentum and places where in the past you go full gas and get a top ten.

“You suffer more, it's quite simple. When I was better, I was suffering less than I am now and it makes it harder to deal with it. But the training, the camps, all the stuff around I still like. But I asked myself ‘if I do another year what would it add to my career?’ Probably nothing.”

The changing of the guard

At Québec and Montreal, Van Avermaet was surrounded by many men younger than him. In Québec, the winner Arnaud de Lie was a full 17 years his junior. As Van Avermaet was at his peak in the late 2010’s, De Lie was a young teenager, far away from the bull in a china shop he now embodies.

Nevertheless, being the elder statesman has, in a way, snuck up on Van Avermaet, even if he has been at it for a long time.

“It's funny, because yesterday we were talking about Bergen from 2017 and [Benîot] Cosnefroy won the worlds for U23. It's not so long ago, but when you see you're actually with teammates around who are super young, you realise you have been an inspiration to them.

“I was a big fan of [George] Hincapie, he was one of the first Americans and had a cool vibe about him. So this kind of inspiration was what you want to be to younger riders. I was in the team with George and I was a little bit afraid, I was a little afraid to say some stuff to him. It's kind of cool to be next to your idol, it's kind of special.”

That special place that Greg Van Avermaet still has for his idols, to this day, has neatly translated into his own status as something of an idol to these younger cyclists, many of whom were too young to even remember riders like Tom Boonen in their hay-day. Greg Van Avermaet was the consummate example of Flandrian cycling for their coming of age.

And, just as Hincapie was able to bestow his wisdom on Van Avermaet in his career twilight, Van Avermaet is set on doing what he can around the peloton to leave his knowledge and wisdom floating around the pack after he is gone.

“I try to make them a little bit better or try to give them a little bit of advice,” Van Avermaet said. “It's cool to see the young guys like Florian Vermeersch come to me in the race and ask me about advice about what he should do.

“I also started that way and I think there is a little bit of respect on both sides. They were probably juniors or debutants when I was on my high and I imagine myself if I was watching [Peter] Van Petegem or [Johan] Museeuw on the Muur. It was like getting goosebumps everywhere so I think it's still also how they feel so I think there is some respect for me which is kind of cool.”

Nevertheless, cycling will always move on, and being the wise older man will only take a rider so far. There comes a time, for everyone, where the sentiments of their past accomplishments give way to the reality of age and vulnerability.

“But of course it's racing and sport is not a kind of sentiment,” Van Avermaet said. “It's too hard for it. It's maybe emotional but you get nothing for free in sports. If you're bad, you get dropped.”

A career with gold-tinted glasses

Behind the matter of factness and the realism that is guiding his retirement at the end of season is a subtle pride that radiates from Van Avermaet, even as his competitive career is on its way out. Now that all is settled, his career remains as impressive as ever, spanning from the late 2000s, when Van Avermaet joined the ‘Pro Tour’ in 2007 with Predictor-Lotto, to his final win this May. Sixteen years and 42 victories, including a Paris-Roubaix cobblestone and Olympic road race gold medal, is enough to enshrine Van Avermaet in the discussion of great Belgian cyclists.

“You have your ups and your downs, eh?” Van Avermaet said with a chuckle. “There are some races you miss, like Flanders I never won but I could maybe have a few years, but in general as a cyclist when you turn pro you start at the same line as everybody and they're all good, so you just try to work yourself up and try to see how far you can come.

"To be honest, I am super surprised to see what I did,” he said.

For fans of Greg Van Avermaet, what made the Belgian so beloved was not just those victories, but more so how those victories were sprinkled into a career filled with the ups and downs mentioned earlier. He was not a prolific winner, he was a selective one. On his terrain, on his day, he was as formidable as anyone – whether it be Sagan, Gilbert, Boonen or Cancellara.

“I had ambition and you feel like in certain races, especially the Classics, you're better than someone else. So then you start believing in yourself and setting goals and I think I accomplished a lot of things I wanted to win. I even won the competition for the best rider in the world which is something I could never dream of.

“For me, there are no regrets and I am super happy with what I did. I worked hard for it, but everyone is working hard in cycling so you have to be lucky and talented and I gave my best everyday and then you cannot have one regret I think if you have done the best you can do.”

In his career, the big wins almost were paired one-to-one with the gutting misses – especially in 2016 and 2017, the two years where he was at his absolute peak. For both of those seasons, the tale was one of redemption.

In 2016, a devastating crash and broken collarbone in the Tour of Flanders derailed a spring campaign which saw a win at Omloop, a sixth at Strade Bianche, a fifth at Milan-San Remo and a overall win at a snow-afflicted Tirreno-Adriatico. With the crash at Flanders, Roubaix was also out of the question, and Van Avermaet was sidelined as his eternal rival Sagan wheelie'd to a win at the historic 100th running of De Ronde.

The summer saw Van Avermaet return to form first with a memorable stint in the yellow jersey at the Tour – which he took from Sagan, in true to 2016 fashion – before riding a calculating race at the mountainous Rio Olympic road race to steal the gold medal from the litany of climbers who lined up in South America.

In 2017, Van Avermaet was foiled again by a crash in Flanders, however, this time it brought down both him and Sagan. The pair were chasing down a flying Philippe Gilbert on the Oude Kwaremont in the finale of a race that the wiley Belgian took by the scruff of the neck with a 50km solo. While Van Avermaet returned to finish third that day, the what ifs of that race still played in his head years later.

Once again, Van Avermaet would get his revenge. Yet in 2017 he didn't have to wait until the summer to find it, with a commanding win in Paris-Roubaix coming the very next weekend, his first and ultimately last Monument win. Yet, even Monuments pale in comparison to the Olympic title that cemented him as Belgium’s golden cyclist.

“There was a lot of work because I was, for a long time, searching for a big win in my career and it didn't come for free, so having this win was the achievement of my life, and I have been enjoying it every day, just for myself,” he said.

A rivalry comes to an end in 2023

In Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet, you have two parallel characters that existed as polarities to different aspects of cycling. Sagan was new, from a new cycling country and seemed to turn his nose at conventions whenever possible. And Sagan was so prolific. Van Avermaet was a stalwart of the traditional Belgian cycling stardom. Steadfast, confident but down to the earth, and selective in his moments of excellence.

Like the great cycling rivalries, the two may have made each other's lists of big wins much shorter, but they also were the catalyst for the battles that enlivened the Classics after Cancellara and Boonen bowed out. They were, throughout their classics careers, counterparts.

“He won much more than me, but on my terrain I could beat him a few times and that makes it nicer,” Van Avermaet said of his eternal rival. “Cycling lives from this, you know, a little bit of one to one, it's always nicer than not having match-ups. I respect him a lot, he's a totally different person than me but it was cool to beat him a few times.

“It makes your career nicer, I think. If you can beat a guy like him, it's always nicer than any other guy. This rivalry lets you be stronger and get the best out of yourself. There were a few sprints where I really had to go for it and if you can beat a guy like him it's super special.”

While Van Avermaet may never admit it - his genuine humility and understated nature would never let it slip - he is undoubtedly one of those special riders. Of course, he says it a bit differently. From his eyes, his career and that of other successful riders, really just belongs to two key details: “I always say, this will always survive: if you have talent and a good nose for the racing you will always go far.”

If that's the case, Greg Van Avermaet has a whole lot of talent and one good nose for racing. With that recipe, the results have been pure gold.

You can watch Greg Van Avermaet in action in his final professional race, Paris-Tours, live on GCN+ on Sunday, October 8. As always, territory restrictions will apply.

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