Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) rides with such assurance that it is easy to forget he is still only 24 years old. Then again, after placing fifth in his debut Tour of Flanders three years ago, the Belgian has every reason to feel comfortable amongst the stars of the cobbled Classics.
A maiden professional victory at Strade Bianche three weeks ago can only have boosted Benoot's confidence still further, and he showed few inhibitions en route to fifth place at E3 Harelbeke on Friday, where he was arguably the strongest rider not wearing the blue and white of arch-rivals Quick-Step Floors, who claimed first and second through Niki Terpstra and Philippe Gilbert.
"It's good for my confidence," Benoot admitted as he sat on the steps of the Lotto Soudal bus after the finish in Harelbeke. "And next weekend's race [the Tour of Flanders – ed.] is longer, so that will only suit me more."
The turning point of this race came over the summit of the Taaienberg, when the Quick-Step pair of Terpstra and Yves Lampaert pressed clear of a reduced peloton. Even some 70 kilometres from the finish, a moment's hesitation can make all the difference in this part of Flanders. Benoot, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) were among those who tried to close the gap in the kilometres that followed, but their failure to mark the move immediately proved costly.
"I wanted to chase Terpstra and Lampaert straightaway, but Gilbert and [Zdenek] Stybar were disrupting the chase a bit, which is logical," Benoot said. "After that I tried to chase with Daniel Oss and [Peter] Sagan, but we waited because the others were coming back behind us. On the Boigneberg I went full out, but Greg Van Avermaet was hesitant to work with me. I didn't want to ride while he was sitting on my wheel in case he'd jump away from me afterwards."
When Terpstra and Lampaert's lead edged out beyond 45 seconds, Van Avermaet finally committed to the pursuit, launching an acceleration on the cobbles at Marriaborrestraat with 55 kilometres remaining. Benoot came with him, and their collaboration belatedly took shape, although they were marked tightly by Gilbert, who sat on in the hope of being dragged up to his teammates ahead.
Benoot appeared particularly generous in his chase efforts, particularly every time the road climbed, though he did not feel that he had contributed any more or less than Van Avermaet. The presence of Gilbert, however, was an inhibiting factor.
"I think I felt good. I gave everything and Greg gave everything too. He had two teammates behind, but he didn't wait, which was good from him," Benoot said. "It's also mentally a bit of a disadvantage if you have one guy from Quick-Step on your wheel, but I think in the end we rode well."
Despite their combined efforts, Benoot and Van Avermaet were unable to make significant inroads into Terpstra's advantage, and they opted to wait for a larger group behind when Gilbert accelerated away from them on Karnemelkbeekstraat with 30 kilometres to go.
Gilbert's effort petered out over the other side, while Terpstra was now alone at the front. Despite the presence of three BMC riders in the 12-strong group that chased him, however, Terpstra had the strength to win by 20 seconds, and Benoot and the rest were left to compete for the minor placings.
"The moment the other group came back, we lost cohesion. I thought then that BMC made a tactical mistake because they didn't pull full for Van Avermaet for a sprint in the end so he could win the race," Benoot said. "But Terpstra was obviously very strong today, otherwise you can't ride at the front for tens of kilometres and hold off a chasing group."
E3 Harelbeke's parcours and its proximity to the Tour of Flanders have seen it increasingly couched as something of a dress rehearsal for De Ronde in recent years. If Quick-Step hit their lines perfectly on Friday, there were question marks over others. World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) came home more than three minutes down in 26th place, though his afternoon was compromised by an early fall.
"He crashed in the beginning of the race so maybe that's why he wasn't at his best level. After the Taaienberg he was strong and he was there with me. But we'll see," said Benoot, who is expected to sit out Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. "We can watch the race on Sunday and learn more about the others there."