GIRO PART 2: DEFENDING YELLOW

Belgium’s Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet knows a thing or two about defending yellow jerseys—or whatever color a leader wears in other stage races. He won the Tour of Yorkshire this past May, won Tirreno-Adriatico in 2016 and twice won the Tour of Wallonia. And prior to donning this Tour’s maillot jaune on Monday night, he wore yellow for three days at the 2016 Tour de France.

Words: John Wilcockson/Images: James Startt

He had no trouble on Tuesday defending the overall lead, being equal on time with American teammate Tejay van Garderen and one second ahead of the third-place rider, Team Sky’s Welshman Geraint Thomas. On being presented with a new yellow jersey after stage 4 in Sarzeau—where he crossed the line in 16th place in a mass-sprint finish—Van Avermaet was pleased with his and his BMC Racing team’s performance. “It was a nice day at the start and pretty hectic in the final,” he said, adding that the main task was to keep their GC leader Richie Porte out of the wind. “Richie was always in front and we stayed in the safe zone. It was perfect.”

Van Avermaet—who besides wearing yellow kit had a special yellow-colored version of the sleek new Giro Aether helmet—indicated that he’ll be more active in Wednesday’s stage 5 to Quimper. It’s a stage that suits his best qualities, with five categorized climbs, plus a dozen other short hills in the second half of the 204.5-kilometer course.

“It will be hard,” Van Avermaet said, “and important to stay in the front again. I think we can do more in the final…and I would like to make a good result. I’ve enjoyed my day in yellow [after winning Monday’s team time trial] but I also came here to try and get a stage win, and this is my first big opportunity. A win in yellow would be even more incredible.”

The 33-year-old Belgian will benefit from his BMC team having sent a six-man team to race on these same hilly roads in April at the Tour of Finistère. That French Cup race, which also ended in Quimper, saw van Garderen finish in the front group of 10 riders (which also contained France’s Tour favorite Romain Bardet), while Porte was in the peloton a minute back. The roads of Brittany, in this Far West province of France, are notoriously dangerous for bike racing, with crashes a constant danger on the narrow, winding back roads. So defending the yellow jersey will not be an easy task, especially as three potential stage winners are less than 12 seconds behind Van Avermaet on overall time: Philippe Gilbert and Julian Alaphilippe of Quick-Step Floors, and Michael Matthews of Sunweb.

Should Van Avermaet defend yellow in Quimper, he will need to be even more attentive (and perhaps more aggressive) on Thursday, when stage 5 ends with two ascents of the wall-like climb at Mûr-de-Bretagne and a 16-kilometer loop on twisting departmental roads in the rolling countryside of northern Brittany. When the Tour had a stage finish on this 2-kilometer, 7-percent climb in 2011, Alberto Contador made a bold attack, with eventual overall winner Cadel Evans overhauling him to take the stage win. Evans was then the leader of BMC, and he was only able to contest the finish because his teammate George Hincapie pulled him back to the peloton after a mechanical in the final 10 kilometers.

So BMC knows all about both the finishes coming up on Wednesday and Thursday at this 2018 Tour. And with the team working so well in opening week, the chances are that Van Avermaet will still be in yellow when the race heads to the north this coming Sunday, to the Belgian’s favorite terrain; the cobblestone roads of Paris–Roubaix.