Omega Pharma-Lotto's Leif Hoste said today that teammate Philippe Gilbert deserves his billing as the team's best chance of victory in the Spring Classics.
Fully recovered from the leg and back injuries that brought a premature end to his 2009 season, Hoste told Cyclingnews that although he will once again head to the northern Classics in search of elusive victory, Gilbert will be a logical favourite.
"It's obvious he's number one. He proved it last year, so I don't have any problems with that," said Hoste. "It's not the first time I've faced this situation in a team, so for me personally it's not a problem."
Although conceding leadership to his Walloon teammate, Hoste himself has been a perennial favourite for the week that encompasses the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix since he finished second in his debut in the Tour of Flanders in 2004. Two further second place finishes, and sixth and fourth place results at Paris-Roubaix in the past two seasons mean he, too, will carry a burden of expectation in early April.
His team manager, Marc Sargeant, told Cyclingnews that he has warned the 32-year-old against his traditionally narrow focus. "I've said to him, more than ever, don't focus alone on the week of Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. It's good to have a focus, but its one week and if there's something wrong then it's all gone."
For Hoste however, his passion for the Belgian and French monuments is difficult to temper. "I can't let those races go. For me it's not easy to say 'I'm not interested anymore', and to not focus on those races," he said. "My goal is to have a good month. Flanders or Roubaix, one of the two, for me they share the same importance. But even races like Harelbeke [E3 Prijs Vlaanderen] for example, they're also nice to win, it's just not those two [Classics] that I'll be aiming for."
Fueling Hoste's motivation this season will also be his return after a truncated schedule last year. Next month's Tour of Qatar will be his first race since September, when an injury sustained in a crash at Paris-Roubaix finally forced him into rehabilitation. This week riding up to five hours a day with his teammates at the squad's training camp in Majorca, he is satisfied the problems are behind him.
"I had five months without competition, and three months without riding my bike at all, so it's been a long way back. But for the moment I don't have any problems and after all the training we've done this week it's not going to come back."
Despite the frustration of his recovery period, Hoste's enforced break has meant he entered 2010 - his 13th year as a professional - better rested than in previous seasons. "I had a long break, so I recovered well," he said. "I feel it too, I'm fresher than I've been in previous years. From that point of view [the recovery period] has been a good thing."