Somewhere at the end of 2023, Greg Van Avermaet will remove his golden helmet for the final time.
Retirement has felt inevitable for the 37-year-old, once such a dominant figure, feared for his versatility. A climber on one day, a classics man on another. A Roubaix winner, a perennial Flanders contender, a rider who climbed with some of the best in the world in the Rio Olympic road race and wore the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. He even won the overall at an (admittedly quite odd) Tirreno-Adriatico in 2016.
They call him “Golden Greg,” a nickname that stuck before he won the gold medal in 2016, more a play on Golden Boy than something to do with victory. He was easy to ride for, teammates said. Didn’t complain. A consummate professional. And then he won in Rio, hanging on for dear life on the wheels of Vincenzo Nibali, Jakob Fuglsang, and Rafał Majka, also at the peak of their powers. Nibali escaped on the climb, then crashed on the descent, and in a sprint between two climbers and one Van Avermaet, it was over before it even started. Nickname now fully earned.
Riders get a reputation with the press, just like reporters probably get reputations in the peloton. Think about it as a simple chart. Y-axis is the propensity to say interesting things, from low to high. X-axis is dickishness, again from low to high. Most riders crowd either in the upper right or lower left. The dicks say interesting (but not always good) things, and the nice guys are often bland or guarded or both. Van Avermaet is a bit of an outlier – he is often good for a quote, almost always down to stop shortly after a finish line and answer questions even as he catches his breath. He doesn’t come out swinging with crazy takes and headline-making lines, he more often offers a considered view of what just happened. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need. Good ol’ Golden Greg.
I hope Van Avermaet enjoys his final season; I hope he gets to ride the Tour, after missing out last year for the first time since 2014. Maybe he’ll go for a stage win again. Mix it up in an uphill bunch sprint with Peter Sagan, just for old-time’s sake, or get in a huge break on a massive climbing day in the Alps and either drop a bunch of climbers or outsprint them at the finish.
We laud the stars of the generation that came after him, wide-eyed at their ability to climb and sprint and race on cobbles, but must also doff our caps to one of the riders who showed such things were possible.