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Olympic champ Van Avermaet prepping for another classics run

The Belgian is currently nursing a broken ankle, an injury one team insider said "looks worse than it is."

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DENIA, Spain (VN) — It’s a bit shocking at first glance to see an Olympic champion hobbling around BMC Racing’s team hotel leaning on a crutch. Greg Van Avermaet broke his ankle in a training accident, but one team insider said “it looks worse than it is. He’s more comfortable on the bike than when he’s walking.”

And that’s what counts for Van Avermaet, who enters 2017 with Olympic glory still burning bright ahead of another run at the spring classics.

“I will be ready for the big battles,” Van Avermaet said at a media day this week. “I feel fine on the bike and there is no pain when I pedal, but I need a good January [of training]. The recovery is going well, and I will be in top shape for the classics.”

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The 31-year-old Belgian catapulted into super-stardom with his dramatic Olympic victory in Rio de Janeiro over the summer. While he was already considered one of the “big three” in Belgian cycling, alongside Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert, Van Avermaet was still missing that big win.

“I’ve been working hard for the big win for nine years of my career,” he said. “If you never do it, people stop believing in you. I never stopped believing in myself. I’ve been fighting for it my whole career … and to have it be the Olympic gold medal, that’s even bigger.”

His thrilling victory in Rio de Janeiro certainly took the weight off his shoulders, and perhaps gave him something more that very few of his contemporaries have.

“Winning the Olympic medal is something people beyond cycling understood,” he said. “The world championship is still the biggest victory inside cycling, but if I tell someone in the public I am a world champion, they ask, in what? Everyone knows what the gold medal means.”

In fact, BMC Racing boasts two Olympic road race gold medalists, with Van Avermaet as defending champ and Samuel Sánchez the winner at the 2008 Beijing Games.

“Samuel asked me, ‘where is your Olympic tattoo?,'” said Van Avermaet, referring to Sánchez’s Olympic rings on his shoulder. “I’m not getting one … I am not a tattoo guy.”

That understated style has suited Van Avermaet well in his patient quest for the “big one.” He opened the 2016 campaign with a win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, then won a weather-shortened Tirreno-Adriatico, and a stage and a stint in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France before riding into Rio under the radar.

The gold medal only seems to stoke his confidence going into the 2017 spring classics. The other “big one” he wants to win? That answer is easy.

“If you are a Belgian rider, you want to win the Tour of Flanders,” Van Avermaet said. “I’ve been close before [2nd in 2014, 3rd in 2015], and I say it every year: I want to win it. I still have a few more chances.”

The departure of Gilbert opens things up for Van Avermaet in the classics, especially in races like Amstel Gold Race and perhaps even Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Van Avermaet confirmed he will race all the major dates from Milano-Sanremo through Amstel Gold, and will wait to see if he races into the Ardennes.

“It’s hard to be in top shape all the way through Liège,” he said. “Amstel Gold is a race that I really like. With Phil, there were certain races he couldn’t do, like Flanders, while he always was the leader at Amstel. I liked racing with Phil, but we each had to make sacrifices. Now I will have more freedom in all the classics.”

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What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.