I can trace my love for the Ardennes back to my childhood, growing up watching these races on television at home. Little glimmers from different years come to me when I think about those days and short flashes of Saint Nicholas and La Redoute as riders attacked.
I knew even then that I wanted to race bikes and that I would dedicate everything toward that goal. People talk about the mental strength you have to have as a rider and the self-belief it takes and it’s true. I remember when I was 11 or 12, before I'd even started racing a bike and kids at school would ask me what I'd do when I grew up. I'd say “I’m going to be a bike rider” and no one believed me. People would just laugh at me and say “no you're not, that's impossible.” But I’d turn around and say yes, I will be. It's a self-belief thing. And that has stayed with me all this time. It's just an inner belief in what I love and racing my bike, racing in Liège, going in as the defending champion, these are the things that make me happy. Enjoying my racing is all that matters to me.
It might sound silly but I'm not driven by results. I'm driven by my hunger and my love for bike racing. I love racing my bike, that feeling of competing, of seeing how good I am and giving it my hardest. So I don't feel pressure before races. There's a personal pressure, of course, but only to go out there and do my best. That's something that the team is really supportive of. They'll work for me all day and as long as they know I've tried my hardest they're happy. Whatever the result, we'll stick together and stand by that.
Journalists sometimes ask me when I realized that I could compete at this level, and in these races. There are a few factors, I guess, and while I've always loved these races I was hampered by allergies, until 2012. The passion I have, that I have always had, for these races is what drives me. If I had to pick a moment - that moment when I knew - it would back in 2009 when I got eighth in Lombardia. I attacked and rode away. That was the moment when I realized I could do this. To be a second year pro and be up there with the lead group, that really showed me that I had the capacity to cope with the long races. Then it was a case of growing with age. In 2010 was fifth at Plouay and I've always felt comfortable with these long races.
My strengths as a rider suit the Ardennes but, I'll be honest, I didn't expect to be up there in these races quite so soon, and that's why winning last year came as bit of a shock. Even still, I only just realized that if you discount Amstel, in the last five Flèches and Lièges I've finished sixth, fifth, fourth, second and first. I’m living out the dreams I had as a kid, watching these races on television. That’s the best feeling in the world.
Later tonight we'll have a team meeting and talk about the tactics so that it's out of the way and on Sunday morning we'll be even more relaxed on the team bus. We'll talk about the course and make sure that all the guys are clear on their roles and objectives for the day. You want everyone on the team starting a race like Liege with a clear goal in their mind. For a one-day race that's crucial, especially as I won last year. We have levels of objectives and good confidence and we believe that we can achieve something again. The meetings we have before races are always pretty relaxed and that's what is special about this team, these races and the riders we have. I've been teammates with these guys for a long time and I count them as friends.
Come Sunday, as long as I've done my best I'm going to be happy. Whether that's first or tenth, me and my teammates will race our hearts out, and we'll deal with the result, whatever it is, afterwards. It's time to race.
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