Over the past couple of years the murmurs of who will replace Tom Boonen as Belgium's leading Classics campaigner have been growing louder and more anxious.
"Could it be him?" they ask. "Yes. No. Perhaps," is the uncertain reply. "What about him?"
When Johann Museeuw came towards the end of his glittering Classics career, there was relatively little head scratching in Belgium as to where his replacement would come from. Boonen was already picking up speed through the bend, ready to ensure the smoothest of baton handovers. Museeuw’s third, and final, Paris-Roubaix victory came in 2002, and a 21-year-old Boonen was standing two steps beneath him on the podium on his debut.
Now, though, Boonen, having gone on to surpass Museeuw’s achievements, finds himself in the twilight of his own career, and there’s no immediate candidate stretching out his hand for the next handover. That’s a big concern for the cycling-mad Belgian public. As Het Nieuwsblad journalist Jan Pieter De Vlieger told the Cyclingnews Podcast this week, Boonen has graced the front cover of the newspaper’s annual pre-season supplement for pretty much the entire past decade. His importance to the country goes beyond his mere palmarès; his force of personality has made him an icon and a media pin-up.
Names of various possible successors have passed by the lips of the Belgian public, as Boonen’s powers have shown signs waning in the last couple of seasons. Some reasonable, and some hopelessly skeptical. However, when a 21-year-old neo-pro rode to fifth place at last year's Tour of Flanders, he seemed to emerge as a clear prospect to latch onto, and the Belgian media duly went into overdrive.
“They immediately got really excited,” says Tiesj Benoot, author of that remarkable Flanders ride, “but maybe too excited, I think.”
Benoot compounded the matter by continuing to surpass expectations, finishing second overall at the Belgium Tour, eighth at the Eneco Tour, and fifth at the WorldTour-level GP de Montréal, while lighting up the races in between. Now, as the Belgians gear up for Omloop Net Nieuwsblad this weekend – their true start to the season – one of the big talking points is whether Benoot can take the baton from Boonen.
“It’s not so healthy,” the youngster tells Cyclingnews. “The press like to make comparisons, and they say a lot, ‘you are the guy to follow Tom Boonen, you have to follow him up, if you don’t do it there’s nobody else in Belgium.’”
It is quite a lot of pressure to be placed on young shoulders. Lotto-Soudal boss Marc Sergeant is wary of the braying media, but reckons if anyone can remain grounded, it’s Benoot.
“I’m convinced he’s a guy who keeps his feet on the ground – he’s quite relaxed,” he says of his young star.
That certainly shines through when Cyclingnews meets Benoot in January at a hotel in Mallorca, where the team is preparing for the 2016 season.
“Cycling is a really narrow world. It’s good to get your feet from time to time in the real world,” he says, describing the pursuit that takes up the time when he’s not racing, training, or – as of late – fielding interviews.
He is studying applied economics at Gent University. Now in his fourth year of study, this would ordinarily be his final term, but it will take another four as he balances the books with the bike.
“I already put a lot of work into it, so I don’t want to drop it now. Mentally it’s nice to be in another world sometimes. You can talk about other things to cycling.”
Feeling slightly guilty for steering the conversation back to cycling, we ask Benoot if he surprised himself by his remarkable adaptation to life as a professional cyclist.
“It was above all my expectations, and the expectations of everyone around me I think,” he replies. “The results I did in the WorldTour, I wanted to do them in the lower classes, the 1.1 races, the smaller races in Belgium. But actually immediately I could play a role in the final in WorldTour races, so it was really a big surprise for me.
“I never thought I could win a Classic before last year. Now, though, in Flanders I might not have been good enough to win but I was there in the final – it’s only one step more to play for the victory.
“Let’s say, the dream became a goal.”
Benoot might claim to have surprised himself, and those around him, but there were some that saw it coming. Kurt Van De Wouwer knows Benoot well. As a directeur sportif working across Lotto’s U23 and WorldTour teams, he coached the Belgian for two years, and had a big say in the decision to promote him to cycling’s top tier at the tender age of 20.
“He came to us from the juniors and already the first races you saw that he had something more than the others. Normally they need two to three months to adapt, but directly from his first races, he was there,” notes the former racer.
“I had him for two years and I didn’t see him racing two or three bad races. He was always on a high level at every race, very consistent, always there, never bad. He’s very smart; he’s always thinking about what, always one step ahead of most guys. He has a very good feeling about the race, how it will turn out, he has a good instinct.”
Flanders might have been the most eye-catching result last year, but Benoot’s performances across the board suggest a remarkably versatile talent, able to cast the net wide and target races of various natures. Fifth at Montrèal, one of the hillier one-day races, would attest to that, and further confirmation was provided just last week at the Volta ao Algarve, where he beat Alberto Contador and Fabio Aru to the top of the Alto de Foia.
“He has a bit of everything, and that was a big difference between him and other good riders,” says Van De Wouwer. “You can take him to Paris-Roubaix on the cobbles, you can take him to Liège-Bastogne-Liège…we took him to the Pyrenees to the Ronde de l’Isard and he also climbed with the first in the Pyrenees.”
Benoot will be focusing wholeheartedly on the Flemish Classics this year, starting with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, but he admits his focus may well change over the coming years.
“For me, in the U23s the Walloon Classics were more my thing – Liège was my biggest goal,” he says, and this spring he will ride Amstel Gold as a sort of experiment to begin to weigh up the Ardennes races against the cobbles.
“I need a few more years [to figure out what kind of rider I am],” he adds. “As a young cyclist I have to watch out, and not ask too much of my body.”
Sergeant, likewise, urges caution, and he has the unenviable pressure of being responsible for Benoot’s development, for extracting the most of his potential and not disappointing an expectant nation.
“In the future we have to be careful which programme we put him on,” says the Lotto-Soudal boss. “Maybe we have to decide if he’ll give it a go for the other part of the Clasiscs, because I’m quite convinced he can do it. If you can finish fifth in Montréal, which is a hard race, I’m sure he can do it in Liège. Maybe not La Flèche Wallonne because you need to be very explosive for that finish, but the other ones he can do it for sure.
“But to combine the two is quite hard. The outcome of the next few months will tell what we’re going to do next spring.”
“The important thing, though, is no Grand Tour – not yet.”
Becoming a winner
One question that surrounds the discussion of Benoot in Belgium, according to De Vlieger, is whether he is a ‘winner’. It may sound a strange concern, but for a nation that has watched Greg Van Avermaet over the last five years, it’s sort of understandable. It’s also one that both Sergeant and Van der Wouwer touch upon.
“He was a very good junior but not really a winner,” says the latter, while Sergeant, after recapping Benoot’s brilliant season, adds the caveat: “Although he didn’t actually win a race.”
Benoot himself is aware of the big difference between being a contender and being a winner, and is doing his best to fend off the pressure by giving himself time.
“There is a difference between fifth and first in these races, but I’m only 21,” he says, “so I think can make another step forward... Maybe not this year, maybe in two years, three years, five years maybe. If you watch Van Avermaet he’s already trying to win a Classic for six, seven years. You need a bit of luck in these races.”
As Boonen’s star fades, however, the Belgian public will grow increasingly anxious to anoint a successor and the challenge for Benoot will be to shut that out.
“I don’t feel responsible for Belgian cycling,” he insists. “I just try to do my best, my very best, and we’ll see where it ends.”