On the eve of Paris-Roubaix, the often-spoiled Belgian fans are still awaiting the first Belgian victory of the spring Classics season. That's quite remarkable, seeing as how many riders are often regarded as favourites.
There's Greg Van Avermaet (CCC), Deceuninck-QuickStep's Philippe Gilbert and his teammate and current Belgian road race champion Yves Lampaert, among others. As the riders are part of international teams, they're not as focused on the nationality of the winners, but their fans on home soil will think differently about that.
During the teams presentation for Paris-Roubaix on Saturday afternoon in Compiègne, France, several Belgian riders expressed their hopes of taking victory at 'The Hell of the North'.
Last year's Belgian road race champion Oliver Naesen was well aware of the expectation on him and his compatriots.
"Sorry, Belgium, but it's not that easy, of course," he said. "I will try. I haven't talked about it with my anybody, but I know that, for the Belgians, it's maybe a bit disappointing.
"In every race, we're among the protagonists. There are always around five Belgians in the top 10 at every race, but we just haven't been able to win this year," the 28-year-old AG2R La Mondiale rider said.
"It would be a childhood dream for me to win Paris-Roubaix. But the level of competition is very high, and it's obviously not only the Belgian riders," Naesen continued.
"I think I've improved a little bit compared to other years; the goal every year is always to try to improve compared to the year before. The only thing that'd missing, of course, is the victory, but it's so difficult to win," he said.
Van Aert leads Belgian charge
According to the results of a vote on Belgian website Sporza, Van Aert came out on top as the favourite to win Paris-Roubaix. Last year, Van Aert made a superb debut in 'The Queen of the Classics', finishing 13th. The triple cyclo-cross world champion had survived all of the scrimmages until a late mechanical threw him out of the top 10.
The death during last year's race of his Veranda's Willems-Crelan teammate Michael Goolaerts cast a major shadow over the race, and Van Aert promised to come back one day and get the flowers for Goolaerts.
One year on, Van Aert repeated his second place at Strade Bianche, impressed with sixth place at Milan-San Remo and took second at the E3 BinckBank Classic. His star in the road discipline has been rising, and Van Aert hasn't minded the extra attention or pressure.
"It's all right. In the races, I've become stronger," Van Aert said in Compiègne on Saturday afternoon. "Last year, many people were curious to find out how I would perform. I've shown that I've earned my spot in the peloton.
"Some riders even hold back a little to let me pass by. I'm being taken seriously, and if I have the legs on Sunday, I hope to be able to do something," he said.
"It’s only recently that I watched a replay of last year's race, and saw that the riders who dropped me rode a very strong finale. I can't really say that a podium spot was possible without the bad luck. But it was a nice debut, and a morale-boost for this year's race."
Stuyven: I believe that I can win this race
Over at Trek-Segafredo team, 26-year-old Belgian Jasper Stuyven is sharing the leadership with German teammate and 2017 Roubaix winner John Degenkolb. Stuyven has struggled with his confidence this season, but after the E3 BinckBank Classic, the Trek-Segafredo squad turned the tide.
At Gent-Wevelgem the team blew the race apart right from the start, and from there Stuyven started building back up towards Roubaix.
"I believe that I can win this race – especially after the sensations I had last week," Stuyven said. "My form has been on the rise, and we'll find out at the race whether it's been in time. It would be a dream come true for me to win Paris-Roubaix.
"I need to be focused and get up there when a group with riders from every team goes up the road," he continued. "The key is to know in which sections there'll be crosswinds and in which sections that won't be the case. Wind from the north to north-east will not boost the racing – especially not when there are so many favourites.
"With a clear favourite, the racing is different. Instead, I expect the pace to drop back once in a while, followed by accelerations, reactions... And then everybody starts looking at each other again. But I prefer koers – real racing," he said.
Benoot and Keukeleire shoulder Lotto Soudal hopes
At Lotto Soudal, leadership will be shared between Tiesj Benoot and Jens Keukeleire. The latter has captured six top-15 results in the Belgian Classics so far this season, including finishing in the group that sprinted for third place at the Tour of Flanders last weekend.
Keukeleire will start his 10th Paris-Roubaix on Sunday morning, but said that, even with so much experience, winning is never easy.
"Every race since the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has been a target for me," he said. "My performances over the last few years, and this season, have shown that I can get a result here at Roubaix.
"I've got a lot of experience already, but it's not easy. There are many riders who'll be crossing the finish line without a win in the pocket. You've got to keep trying and keep the belief in yourself. I've managed to get some good results here in the past, and I'll try to do that once again," said Keukeleire, who finished sixth on the velodrome in 2015.
"There's nobody like Fabian Cancellara or Tom Boonen anymore. There'll be a big group in the finale like at Flanders, and that might benefit me. I feel that my legs are good. I'm not being dropped, and I'm even able to attack sometimes. I've been feeling good throughout the season," he added, saying that he expected Deceuninck-QuickStep, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Van Aert to be the ones to watch.
Three-pronged attack for EF Education First
After the Scheldeprijs last week, EF Education First's Sep Vanmarcke said that he thought that he'd be ready to perform at Paris-Roubaix. Three days later, he was still positive about his chances, although his knee problems – following a crash at the E3 BinckBank Classic – were far from resolved.
"The knee didn’t get enough rest, and after the Scheldeprijs it started swelling again. I still feel fresh, but my knee is sore," the Belgian said.
"I'd said after the Scheldeprijs that I thought about racing the Amstel Gold Race, but I've got to respect that my knee needs rest. First, I'll have a go at Paris-Roubaix, where we're sharing the leadership between three riders, just like at the Ronde. It'll be Sebastian Langeveld and me, together with Taylor Phinney, instead of Alberto Bettiol," Vanmarcke told Cyclingnews on Saturday afternoon.
Twenty-four hours later, it'll become clear whether the Belgian fans will have finally had something to celebrate.
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