Two riders were present in the Holiday Inn function room on the outskirts of Gent, but Jumbo-Visma’s pre-Tour of Flanders press conference was dominated by the ghost of a third.
Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte were the ones there in body, looking a little lost in the absence of Wout van Aert, the Jumbo-Visma team leader and top favourite who was declared ‘unfit’ on Thursday.
“There is no news about Wout,” went the opening address from the team’s press officer. Cue 20 minutes of questions about Wout. Later in the afternoon the team posted a video message to confirm the Belgian had tested positive for COVID-19 and would not race.
“In any case, we’ll be there on Sunday to do as well as possible with the team,” Laporte offered.
When the pair did offer some insight on tactics, it was hypothetical and prefaced with a tentative ‘if’.
“If he’s not there, then it’s a big difference for everyone,” Benoot said. “All of our competitors are looking at social media to see if there’s any news yet. Spectators, journalists, everyone… 95 per cent we are talking about him now.”
Van Aert has been the outstanding rider of the spring so far, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in dominant fashion before stamping his authority on E3 Saxo Bank Classic, where he crossed the line arm-in-arm with Laporte. Shouldering the Belgian champion’s jersey and the hopes of a nation, he was the towering figure in the run-up to the Holy Sunday.
It has hardly been a one-man show; Benoot opened up the Omloop and placed second at Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, while Laporte almost went all the way at Kuurne, before placing second at both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. However, both of them have arguably thrived on Van Aert’s presence and the numbers game Jumbo-Visma have been able to play.
As such, both riders appear to see their own routes complicated - not cleared - by the absence of their leader.
“Actually, I wouldn’t give myself more stars without Wout on the start than with,” Benoot said of his place in the hierarchy of favourites.
As for Laporte, “For a rider like me it’s more difficult to win without him than with him.”
Both riders pointed to Benoot’s runner-up finish at Dwars as evidence they can race well in the absence of Van Aert. However, Benoot was roundly beaten in the two-up sprint with Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix).
“How would you do it?” the Belgian jokingly retorted when asked about the prospect of a repeat scenario. “I need to get away alone.”
Whereas finishing speed is what’s lacking in Benoot, it’s Laporte’s biggest strength. In that respect, the two riders could still form a strong tactical approach on their own.
“With Christophe having a really good sprint, we are pretty complementary I think,” said Benoot.
Still, the absence of a rider who combines both their greatest assets into one package would undoubtedly leave a huge hole, both within the team and the race as a whole. Jumbo-Visma had been expected to control proceedings and open the race at a time of their choosing, but it was interesting that both riders strongly suggested that won’t be the case anymore.
“If Wout is not there we’ll have less responsibility,” said Laporte, before Benoot took the pre-race mind games up a notch. “The biggest responsibility is with Alpecin,” he said. “We’ll see if they do it or not.”
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