Belgium might have found a new top-notch rider. During Sunday's queen stage of the Tour de France, Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) showed off his great climbing qualities in the breakaway group. Still only 23-years-old, he managed to emerge as one of the best climbers in the large breakaway. On the hors categorie climbs, Benoot was more or less on the same level as respected uphill specialists Warren Barguil (Sunweb) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo).
"It was an extremely hard stage. I’ve never pumped out these power values, especially after nine days. It's the first time in my career that I'm racing for nine days in a row. And then they scheduled such an enormous stage, it's nearly tougher than a classic. It was really hard. The level is really high. Then again, you know that when you're racing here, it doesn't get any harder than this," Benoot said, laughing.
Benoot seems to have a great cycling career ahead of him, one which he combines with university studies in Applied Economics. He should earn his degree in January. “Then I'll try to get a master's degree in two years," he added.
It was not a secret that Benoot was a massively talented rider, but after placing fifth at the 2015 Tour of Flanders, he was expected by many in Belgium to be another young Classics specialist. He had already shone at the mountainous Ronde de l'Isard as an amateur in 2014, however, helping Louis Vervaeke to overall victory, and he is now confirming as a professional that he is capable of much more than cresting the bergs and cobbles of the one-days races in Flanders.
At the Critérium du Dauphiné, Benoot showed off his climbing skills to finish 12th overall, and he is following that up on the Tour. On stage 9, Benoot and Barguil were the only survivors from the large early break on the Mont du Chat. After Benoot was distanced by Barguil on the final climb, he was caught by the group of yellow jersey Chris Froome (Sky).
"I hope it wasn't the last time I ride among the GC guys on a big climb," said Benoot, who was unable to follow Froome et al near the summit and eventually had to settle for 12th place in Chambéry, in a group that came in 3:32 down on the leaders.
"We waited for [Michael] Matthews because we expected that the Sunweb riders would start pulling straight away, but that wasn't the case. We lost three minutes in the valley and those are the minutes I lacked in the end," Benoot said.
As the Tour broke for its first rest day on Monday, Benoot lay 23rd overall, 18:44 behind Froome.
Lotto Soudal directeur sportif Herman Frison maintains that Benoot's studious nature is not limited to his third-level education at the University of Ghent. In the build-up to the Tour, the youngster followed in the wheel tracks of former Lotto riders Cadel Evans and Jurgen Van den Broeck by training methodically at Sierra Nevada.
"Sierra Nevada is something he picked up from us. We told him what we did with Jurgen Van den Broeck and many years ago with Cadel. We learned a lot," Frison told Cyclingnews. "We've given him the information and we're curious to see what he's going to do with it. He went to the Sierra Nevada. He trained there on the days that Van den Broeck trained there, and he was smart enough to bring over his trainer of his own initiative. In the past, we sent a mechanic and soigneur from the team but we no longer do that as we're not chasing the general classification. He's learning a lot."
Benoot is still discovering his limits. He was fifth in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and fifth in the GP Montréal in 2015, second overall in the Baloise Belgium Tour in 2015, third in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2016. This year, he rode a different calendar. He was fourth in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, eighth in the Strade Bianche. He had a go at the Amstel Gold Race and finished fifteenth. A few days earlier, he had finished third in the Brabantse Pijl. Later, he had his good run in the Critérium du Dauphiné. At one point, Benoot will surely have to choose between the Classics and stage races.
"The question's been asked to me a massive amount of times. I'll just decide about my racing program in the winter. Every year we'll see. This year, I did the Amstel Gold Race and that turned out really well. Maybe I can try other things next year,” Benoot said during the Tour's opening week. "I love the Flemish one-day classics but I realize that this is professional cycling. You've got to do what you're best at."
In Chambéry on Sunday, Benoot was coy about the idea that his future might lie in the Grand Tours. His aim for the race, he said, was to help in André Greipel's sprint lead-out and discover his capabilities on other stages.
"When you're fifth in the Tour of Flanders, then that's something worth aiming for. Just because I'm going well over here right now doesn't mean I'm a Grand Tour rider. My goal is just to be in the mix for the victory in these types of stages, and today I managed to do that in a certain way," Benoot said. "In the winter, we'll look at the rest. One-day races are still my cup of tea, but we'll have to see whether next year, I'll do the cobbled classics or the harder one-day races. The atmosphere in the Ronde is unbelievable, but then again, today [stage 9 of the Tour – ed.] was incredible too. I had great fun."
Benoot himself conceded that the Tour made for a rather different challenge to the Dauphiné. "There are flat stages that didn't feature in the Dauphiné. There's a lot of stress, media, big crowds. There's a lot of factors to take into account. The pace is more or less the same but the course is different," Benoot said. "It was much more relaxed at the Dauphiné."