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I'm not cycling's Novak Djokovic: Greg Van Avermaet defends plan to delay Covid-19 booster

The AG2R Citroën rider blamed the vaccinations for his poor form in the second half of 2021

Former Olympic road race champion Greg Van Avermaet has defended his decision to delay receiving a booster dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, after Spanish media labelled the Belgian rider “cycling’s Novak Djokovic”.

Unlike the controversial tennis star, Van Avermaet received two doses of the vaccine last year. However, speaking at his AG2R Citroën team’s media day last week, the 2017 Paris-Roubaix winner blamed his struggles during the second half of 2021 on the timing of his second vaccine, administered just before a significant block of racing which included the Critérium du Dauphiné, the Tour de France and the Olympic Games.

After a strong spring classics campaign capped off by a podium place at the Tour of Flanders, Van Avermaet was relatively anonymous during the summer months and was forced to ride as a domestique at the Tour de France and Olympics, before missing out on selection altogether for the Belgian team at their home world championships in September.

> Greg Van Avermaet suspects Covid-19 vaccine could explain loss of form

“It didn't go the way I wanted, especially in the second half of the season. I blame it on my vaccination," Van Avermaet told reporters. 

“Since then I have not raced at a level anymore. You really have to time that and I did it just before the Dauphiné, after a hard training period and just before a hard race. That was not a good idea. 

“Normally I'm always good for a place in the top ten or to participate in the finals, now I even had a hard time in the grupetto in the Tour. I wanted to stop myself, but the team wanted me to continue, including for our classification man Ben O'Connor and I did, but then you wear your body further.” 

Van Avermaet also claimed that his post-season blood values were lower than normal. “My body was fighting against something,” he said.

The classics star is not the only rider who has blamed an under par showing at the Tour de France on the vaccine – Danish climber Jakob Fuglsang also claimed that the second shot, taken just before the Tour, led to his power numbers resembling “where they are in December or even worse.”

> Jakob Fuglsang blames second Covid vaccine for anonymous Tour de France performance

While Van Avermaet – who contracted Covid in November, delaying his return to training – insists that he will still receive the booster at some point, he revealed that he will delay getting his third jab until after this season’s spring classics campaign.

“I'm not so keen on that third shot right now,” he said. “I'll have it after the classics, I think that's the best option. I don’t want to make the same mistake.”

Despite the rider’s insistence that he is not against Covid vaccinations, the Spanish newspaper El Español responded to the comments by labelling Van Avermaet “the Djokovic of cycling”.

The former BMC man, however, says this is not the case. “If I hadn't fallen ill, I would have had that syringe put in a long time ago. I am therefore in favour of vaccination. I don't want anyone to think I'm some kind of Novak Djokovic.”

Van Avermaet’s comments come in the same week France introduced a controversial new vaccine pass which will be obligatory for anyone attending sporting events in the country, including athletes. From 15 February, a third booster dose will be required four months after the previous doses for an individual’s vaccine pass to remain valid. This new law may force Van Avermaet to change his mind about the booster if he wishes to target April’s Paris-Roubaix, a race he won five years ago.

It was also revealed this week that, according to a UCI presentation from December, 79 percent of men’s WorldTeam riders and staff were vaccinated, and that three-quarters of the squads had more than 80 percent of their members vaccinated (though some teams were as low as 40 percent). On the women’s WorldTour, 97 percent of riders and staff are vaccinated.

Ryan joined as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.

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