Laurens De Plus is part of the new wave of Belgian climbers and a good result at the Tour de l'Avenir in the next days would put him in the slipstream of Tim Wellens or Louis Vervaeke. However, the 20-year-old rider has decided to sign his neo-pro contract for 2016 not with Lotto-Soudal, but Etixx-Quick Step, Patrick Lefévère's brigade. The Belgian national lottery could have been angry seeing one of the most promising talents of its feeder team (Lotto U23) joining their long-time rivals. But, instead, his managers received politely the decision and wished him good luck.
This is certainly because "Laurens is always a honest, helpful and very kind person," his friend and other Lotto's raising star Tiesj Benoot tells Cyclingnews.
"I have a lot of respect to Lotto-Soudal and I am really grateful to them," De Plus says. "But sometimes you have to make hard decisions."
His transfer, announced last Friday, was a blend of release and excitement for this climber who is growing fast since he has began cycling five years ago.
"This is not a sport for you," his parents used to say. "LDP" was certainly based in Ninove, the former finish of the Tour of Flanders, a big fan of Tom Boonen having cycling posters in his room... But his parents thought cycling was too dangerous and too expansive until they made an unexpected meeting in Tennerife.
It was in 2010, on summer holidays, when De Plus was traveling with his parents. His family found out they were staying in the same hotel as former Tour of Flanders winner, Peter Van Petegem. Laurens' father went to talk to him, asked a few questions. The small and skinny boy was then allowed to try competition.
"I had to be patient," he says. "In my first three years I felt strong but I was very unlucky, with frequent flat tyres. I also missed some mountains. I am from a flat area of Belgium and I needed some hills to make the difference. If there was a very small climb in a kermesse I was happy!"
In his heart and legs, De Plus knew he was a climber. "I rode in the mountains for the first time when I was 17, at the Tour du Valromey [a Junior stage race in the French region of l'Ain, north of Lyon and near the Swiss border, ed.] I lost maybe 30 minutes in the long ascents because I had no specific preparation. But I thought I could do much better the year after."
Indeed, fighting against Netherlands' Mathieu van der Poel and France's Elie Gesbert, the Flemish climber finished fifth overall in the 2013 edition. That was the trigger of his palmarès. But "LDP" had to remain patient, though.
For his first Under-23 season, he raced as a team-mate in Lotto-Soudal development group. Louis Vervaeke and Tiesj Bennot both got his support and said, once they went to the WorldTour level, it was the turn of their friend.
"They gave me a lot of advice," De Plus says. Ahead of the Ronde de l'Isard, in May, the 2014 winner Vervaeke offered some tips to his former team mate. Benoot, who was fifth in the Tour of Flanders this year, shared his training camp with him in the Vosges.
De Plus finished second of the French race and performed at high level on other UCI events such as the Peace Race, a Nations' Cup leg in Czech Republic (fourth overall), the very hilly Tour of Val d'Aoste (second in GC and stage winner) and the Tour of Alsace (fourth overall).
A Tour de l'Avenir contender and De Plus' training partner, Aimé De Gent, says his friend (described as "funny and always laughing") is "certainly finding out more about himself and surprising himself."
"He can do even better if he thinks more about himself and fully believes in being a team leader," says Benoot. "As I started cycling quite late, there's room for improvement," explains De Plus. "I am not at the top of my potential."
More and more in a "leader" role this year, the Ninove-born De Plus is emerging as part of the new wave of Belgian climbers. Most of his fellows now race at Lotto-Soudal. This is another one of the reasons why he signed to Etixx for three seasons.
"I am ready to be patient again, ride for the others and learn from some big riders," De Plus says. "I hope I will keep developing as a climber because it's really my thing now."
"I know that," he adds. "At the Tour of Val d'Aoste, I was suffering a lot in the Grand Saint-Bernard pass. I was only hanging because I knew I had to suffer and the others were in trouble too. In such à moment, you climb, you do your best... and you try to be patient!"
Pierre Carrey, the founder and president of DirectVelo, is Cyclingnews' correspondent at the Tour de l'Avenir.