Sensing that the Belgian press might be about to fill a Tom Boonen-sized void in their classics coverage with copious helpings of Tiesj Benoot, Lotto Soudal has this week adopted a strategy similar to the one employed by Manchester United when Ryan Giggs first burst onto the scene in the early 1990s.
For three days in the wake of his fifth-place finish at the Tour of Flanders, the 21-year-old was strictly off limits. All media requests were politely declined, as Benoot recuperated quietly at home in his parents' house in Drongen on the outskirts of Ghent, not far from the Eddy Merckx velodrome.
A man dubbed hopefully as a new Boonen cannot stay under wraps for the entirety of the sacred week that links the Ronde to Paris-Roubaix, of course, and Benoot returned before the microphones and cameras near Bruges on Thursday afternoon.
Last year the attendance at Lotto’s press conference before the classics was small enough for all the reporters present to squeeze onto the team bus with plenty of room to spare. This time around, they were sufficient in number to warrant a conference room inside the Van der Valk hotel. The Benoot effect, perhaps, though a timid question about the increase in his female following post-Ronde aside, the hysteria was mercifully nowhere the levels faced by a young Boonen.
"I had a lot of requests but I didn’t talk to the press for the past three days and that’s helped to calm things down a bit," Benoot told Cyclingnews after the main conference, where he had spoken with a calm confidence not at all common among professional cyclists of such tender years. "I’m obviously just very happy with what I did on Sunday and since then I’ve had a lot of rest. Yesterday I did an individual recon of the Roubaix course and today I did one with the team."
Benoot makes his Paris-Roubaix debut on Sunday as part of a Lotto Soudal team eager to be as aggressive as it was at the Tour of Flanders. Ahead of the Ronde, Benoot was assigned the very precise task of going on the offensive after the Taaienberg, but his role for Paris-Roubaix is less specific. The idea is simply to be present deep into the finale, and his teammate Roelandts looked to downplay expectations by saying it would be tougher for Benoot to do so than it had been in Flanders. "If you have a bad moment in Roubaix, you can’t recover," Roelandts warned.
"I did the under-23 Paris-Roubaix last year and it went ok but with the professionals it’s obviously going to something very different," Benoot said. "I don’t know what I’m going to be able to do on Sunday and I don’t really know what to expect either. We’ll see. I just know that my condition is good and my form is good, so I hope I can do a good race on Sunday."
Cobbles or Ardennes
Benoot showcased a range of talents during his brief amateur career, finishing third at the under-23 Tour of Flanders and fifth at the under-23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège within the space of a week. For good measure, he helped himself to third in the prestigious Ronde de l’Isard stage race later in the season, though he is adamant that his future lies primarily in the classics.
"I definitely think I’m more of a rider for the one-day races, for the classics. It’s a question of figuring out whether I’m going to be better in the Flemish classics or in the Ardennes. We’ll see," he explained.
During the winter, he was surprised when Lotto manager Marc Sergeant earmarked him expressly for Lotto’s cobbled classics unit, but Benoot was only pencilled into the plans for the Tour of Flanders after a string of impressive early-season results, including fourth at Le Samyn, third at the Handzame Classic and sixth at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
"It was actually initially planned that I would do Roubaix and Amstel but then after I went well on some of the early cobbled races it was decided that I’d do the Tour of Flanders, so now I’m going to go and do Paris-Roubaix instead of Amstel," he said. "That’s a bit of a change but maybe in the years to come I’ll be able to try the Ardennes classics as well, and choose what to specialize in after that."
For now, on and off the bike, Benoot has no desire to restrict his horizons. After graduating from Lotto’s under-23 team in the winter, he has opted to continue his education at the University of Ghent, where he is studying for a degree in economics. "I like combining the two because it’s good for the head to do something different," he explained during the press conference.
Although a full-time student, the course allows for a degree of flexibility. Benoot has been able to clear his university schedule since the weekend of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, for instance, though regardless of his finishing position in the Roubaix velodrome, he plans to return to the library on Monday.
"Since Het Nieuwsblad I haven’t done anything other than cycling, but after Sunday, once things are a bit calmer, I’ll be spending time at home, just training, so I should have freedom in the afternoons to study," he said. "You can’t study all day every day just the same as you can’t ride your bike all day every day, so it’s a good combination."
Benoot plans to continue living with his parents until at least 2016, by which point he hopes to have earned his primary degree. Whether he continues to study for a masters qualification beyond that, one senses, might have a lot to do with how rapidly his education proceeds on the road. "We’ll take it year by year," he smiled.
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