The pavé specialists didn’t hold back at E3 Harelbeke. Nearly all top guns were fighting in the frontline for nearly 80 kilometres. Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) proved to be the strongest of them all on Friday. Though unable to follow the former World champion’s decisive move young Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) showed he can lead the Belgian team at the Ronde van Vlaanderen next Sunday.
After finishing fifth in the sprint for third place at 11 seconds from the winner Benoot quickly freshened up in the red Lotto-Soudal team bus before sitting in the doorway to evaluate his performance on Friday.
“My form is good. I knew that on Wednesday [Dwars door Vlaanderen] already. I felt slightly better so that’s good, I’m improving. In the final of the race everybody was riding at their maximum, à bloc. In the sprint I should’ve been sixth but Boom just passed me before the line. Finishing seventh in a race where it was man to man, with all the best riders in the world except for Van Avermaet, that’s not bad. Especially knowing that it was a final of 80 kilometres where I wasn’t saving myself, making the race. I can’t complain”, Benoot said.
Though still only 22 years of age the Belgian rider has a certain cool over him. This talented young man is on the verge of merging into a classics star who might rule the cobbles in the next decade. If he does, he doesn’t seem to be a man who will be carried away by the fame that comes along with success. Instead he’s calmly analyzing the race and enjoying the fact that he managed to leave his mark in it.
“I’ve done my scouting well and I knew that from there it would be hard to organize a chase because the roads were so small from there. I’ve been delivered perfectly by the team. Roelandts struggled with his back. He told me that he wasn’t feeling great.”
It was a very nice race. It was really hard. It was a final of 80 kilometres and that showed off. To me, it was one of the most beautiful races of the last few years. All the favourites were up there in the final.”
When asked to name favourites for the Ronde there was no room for Tom Boonen in his top-3 that featured Cancellara, Sagan and Van Avermaet. “Boonen? He was very good but it’s a sign to me that they opted for Trentin in the sprint.” He doesn’t regard Kwiatkowski as a top favourite for the Ronde because he saw him struggling on the Oude Kwaremeont, a climb that features three times in the Tour of Flanders.
“On the Kwaremont I somehow ended up riding on Tom’s wheel [Boonen]. I remained in that position until the corner where I passed him straight away to bridge up with the riders ahead of me. I passed Kwiatkowski but then he came back. It’s a climb that suits him slightly less. That’s also why I don’t regard him as a top favourite for Flanders. Karnemelkbeekstraat is more his cup of tea, genre Amstel Gold Race. It was strong. First he gets dropped and then he rides away like that.
Following the move from Kwiatkowski and world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) on the so-called E3-col or Karnemelkbeekstraat wasn’t possible for Benoot. “They rode really fast. I can tell you. Everybody was gasping for air. It’s weird because I rode by Kwiatkowski on the Kwaremont but then he manages to bounce back this way. That’s impressive. Afterwards they rode very fast in our group but they were unable to bring them back despite the headwind. Impressive stuff.”
Last year Benoot emerged as a big talent for the classics on the highest level, finishing fifth in his first Ronde van Vlaanderen. At the 2015 edition of the E3 Harelbeke he finished eighteenth. “Last year I felt really good too but the race was less hard. Then we were riding with 100 riders towards the Paterberg. This time around, several matches were burned by the time we arrived there.”
So far Benoot is clearly in top form, approaching the monuments Flanders and Roubaix. He sprinted for the victory at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and made a strong debut at the Strade Bianche, finishing eighth and on Friday again a top-10 result. Nevertheless, his strong performance on Friday didn’t boost his confidence, he explained. “I was confident already and that didn’t evaporate, most certainly not. I’m one of the outsiders, somewhere among the first ten but certainly not the top favourite.
Watch the video below for the full list of our riders to watch at Gent-Wevelgem and let us know who you think will win in the comments below.
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