Niki Terpstra has insisted he is very satisfied with how things are going at Direct Energie, and it seems the feeling's mutual, with Damien Gaudin describing the Dutchman as a "born leader" who has breathed new life into the second-division French team in the build-up to the spring classics and especially this weekend's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Terpstra won the Tour of Flanders, E3-Harelbeke and Le Samyn in a glittering spring campaign last year, but raised eyebrows when he left the all-conquering QuickStep for the Professional Continental outfit. Formerly only one 'option' in a star-studded line-up, Terpstra is now the leader and talisman at a team that has little pedigree in the Classics of northern Belgium and France.
Many have questioned what Direct Energie can give him, and whether they are capable of supporting him adequately, but it's also worth looking at what he brings to them.
"For sure this is the most motivated I've been coming into the Classics," Gaudin, the team's former leader for the spring races, told Cyclingnews.
"We have a big leader who has already won the biggest one-day races in the world, and who's the reigning Flanders champion. Being at the start of the Classics with Niki really gives me something extra."
The perceived gulf between WorldTour and Professional Continental teams can be overstated but Gaudin paints a clear picture of Terpstra bringing his ideas and helping to raise standards.
He had a big say on the equipment side, advising bike sponsor Wilier Triestina, and demanded a pre-season trip to Flanders to test it all out in the appropriate environment. He has also booked the team into a new hotel for the Classics period - the one he used to stay in with QuickStep.
"Niki is a born leader. He really wants to improve the team, so we can win races and compete in these Classics as a big team. Already, in just a few months he's brought a lot to the table," Gaudin said.
"He is very meticulous about everything he does. He always wants the best and is always looking for solutions - in terms of the bike, equipment, nutrition, hotel conditions - everything. Honestly, it's great. We're very much discovering a new impulse, and I think it's going to be a great Classics campaign for us with Niki."
As for the racing itself: "He gives advice more to the younger guys, but he always has something to offer to us all. I often find myself in front of him, and he explains how he wants me to move him up and position him. I made a few errors in Oman - he's not like a sprinter with a big jump who wants to be dragged up in a fraction of a second - but he told me calmly after the stage and explained how he wanted me to do it. It's important to get used to each other, so that when we get to Belgium everything clicks into place."
French and friendly
The level of communication has surprised a lot of Terpstra's new teammates. He knew very little French before November but has been learning in the classroom and the car and has, by all accounts, shown no sign of ego in making every effort to slot into his new surroundings.
"We communicate in French. He says some things in English when he can't think of the French, but he's really improving and learning fast. That shows a desire," said Gaudin.
"We're really becoming a tight group. He comes by our rooms to see us, he takes a real interest. In Oman he came round and told us how happy he was with the team since he arrived. Even if we come in half an hour down, he always stays and says well done after each stage. It's great."
Gaudin will be one of Terpstra's key lieutenants this weekend and over the course of the spring. He and Adrien Petit, formerly the team's two leaders with a free role, will be the pair charged with staying with the Dutchman as far into the business end of the races as possible, along with Pim Ligthart, a new signing from Lotto Soudal.
"My dream has always been to be play a leading role in these Classics," Gaudin said. "Now, with Niki, I'm dreaming of winning a big Classic. If and when he does, I hope to be there to help him win it."