The Olympic Champion Is Just Like Us: Tired And Tense, But Hopeful


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The Olympic champion is late to his media conference call because his wife is at the store, and he’s home with their young children—including a baby born in November.

When the Zoom window opens, we see Greg van Avermaet. He looks tired. Like he just finished a stage of the Tour. He rubs his forehead and pulls at a long lock of wavy brown hair.

Like the rest of us, the Olympic champion has not had a haircut in a month or more.

Like the rest of us, Van Avermaet is locked down, in his case, at home in Belgium. He’s juggling his job as a professional cyclist with the care of his kids and ongoing media demands.

Every time an event is postponed or canceled, he gets a call from the Belgian press. What does the Olympic champion think about the absence of the classics? Will he try for the Olympics in 2021? Should the Tour de France still be held this summer, as rumored?

Amazingly, candidly, Van Avermaet does his best to answer these questions. He lives in the same uncertain world as the rest of us, but he has insights the rest of us don’t.

He talks about his friend, the organizer of the E3 Binck Bank Classic in Harelbeke, and how his friend told him it was a better financial decision to cancel the race than reschedule.

“He said to me that it is impossible for him to have one edition at the end of the year and then another early the following year,” Van Avermaet explains. “He just would not have the budget.”

Still, Van Avermaet does hope the Tour of Flanders can be held in the fall, even if that means shortening the grand tours. 

“I think it is really important for the classics riders to have an opportunity,” Van Avermaet says. “I think it would be more of a loss for the classics riders than grand tour riders because we really don’t have many opportunities.”

Surely, Van Avermaet can’t help but think of his own lost opportunities. He’s one of the best classics racers of his generation, but he’s never won the Tour of Flanders, the Belgian monument that takes place right in his backyard.

“I’m getting older,” Van Avermaet says. He’s not sure if—at 36—he’ll target the postponed Olympics in 2021. 

“You should be happy, you’re the one guy who gets to be Olympic champion for five years!” A reporter jokes. Another year on a golden bike, with a golden helmet, answering as Golden Greg.

Van Avermaet smiles. He says next year, “For sure the golden helmet will be gone.”

Like the rest of us who have children, Van Avermaet is not spending his time under coronavirus restrictions binging on Netflix series or reading books.

After he and his wife get the kids to bed and finish cleaning, Van Avermaet says, “We hit the couch at nine or nine thirty. It’s crazy. I don’t have any time to myself at the moment.”

Van Avermaet says he’s gained an even greater appreciation for his wife, who manages the kids and home when he’s normally away racing for weeks at a time.

He does watch the news every day, “To keep up with everything going on in the world.”

Like many of us, Van Avermaet is taking neighborhood walks with his family. “People have started talking to each other again,” he says. “I’ve probably spoken to more people in the last few weeks than in my whole time living in this house. You learn to know each other a little bit better. Neighbors who I’ve never seen before.”

Casual sidewalk chats with a gold medalist, from a safe distance.

“Hopefully we can keep doing this afterwards,” says Van Avermaet.

Like the rest of us, Van Avermaet is talking to friends and family on video calls. He likes the app where you can put silly pictures on people’s faces.

“They open their mouth and you can feed them a hamburger,” he laughs.

“What about pay cuts, Greg?” A reporter asks. “We’ve seen other teams reducing salaries.”

It’s inevitable, Van Avermaet knows, that he will likely make less money this year than he did last year, just like the rest of us. And he’s accepted that he may need to reduce his salary for the CCC Team to survive, to help the title sponsor—a Polish shoe retailer—stay in business.

“If you’re sponsored by a supermarket, you probably won’t be taking a pay cut, because they’re having a great time for the moment,” Van Avermaet says. “But companies like CCC and Giant Bikes suffer from the crisis. We should be loyal to our sponsors and stand behind them, and most important for me is that after this virus is done, they can step up again.”

Van Avermaet hopes that when bike racing comes back, in a new world, after the virus, teams can gain a share of broadcast rights revenue, like in soccer, to give them more stability.

Just like the rest of us who are still allowed to exercise, Van Avermaet is riding regularly, as much for his mind as his body, he admits. “Endurance rides, around 100km a day,” he says. He’s exploring new roads and sometimes going out on his mountain bike.

In normal times, there is a strong group of pros in Flanders for him to train alongside. But Van Avermaet has reduced his circle of riding partners to just his friend and teammate Gijs Van Hoecke. “We made a pact,” he says, to stay safe, for themselves and their families.

On Sunday, Van Avermaet will compete in the virtual Tour of Flanders, racing as an avatar on a simulation of the Flanders final, including digitized versions of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. He’ll compete against a dozen other pros, in a race broadcast live throughout Belgium and around the world, including on the FloBikes platform.

Like the rest of us, Van Avermaet prefers to ride and race in real life. “I’m not a big fan of virtual riding,” he admits. “But it’s something to give to the people, to look forward to.”

He hears the people when he’s out riding. Van Avermaet says, now more than ever before, he feels the support of the people. They see the Olympic champion riding the roads of Flanders, and they shout, “We hope you get to race soon!”

Van Avermaet hopes he gets to race soon, too, just like the rest of us.

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