Twelve months ago, Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) pulled off the remarkable feat of staying hidden in plain sight during the build-up to the Tour of Flanders. Despite a string of fine results in the early part of the spring, the neo-professional was able to line up for his debut Ronde relatively unfettered by the demands of the home press.
Benoot’s eventual fifth place finish, at the tender age of 21, changed his standing somewhat, particularly with Tom Boonen very much in the Autumn of his career, but the economics student seems unaffected by the increased attention as he lines up for his second tilt at Flemish cycling’s day of days.
“Last year was the first time I did a race of this distance and it went well for me,” Benoot said at Lotto-Soudal’s pre-race press gathering in Oostkamp on Wednesday evening. “This year, I’m taking the start with different sensations but not with any more stress. I’m setting out with the same confidence as in 2015. I’ve been up there in the finale of the last three races I’ve done and I’ve had better results in those races than I did last year.”
Benoot was an aggressive presence at Dwars door Vlaanderen, placed 8th at E3 Harelbeke and 15th at Gent-Wevelgem last week, following on from a sparkling start to the season that saw him finish third at Omloop Het Nieuwblad and 8th at Strade Bianche.
Buoyed by those showings, Benoot will be expected to be in the mix come the finale on Sunday, though his directeur sportif Herman Frison insisted that there were three riders – Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara and Greg Van Avermaet – operating at a level above the rest. The leap from making an impressive cameo to winning in Oudenaarde is considerable.
“I can win but it’s very difficult,” Benoot said. “There are three riders ahead of everybody else and so you’ll need a bit of luck to beat them. But behind them, anything is possible and in a race of 260 kilometres, you never know.”
As an under-23 rider, Benoot shone on all terrains, including the tough Ronde de l’Isarde stage race in the Pyrenees, and when he graduated to the professional ranks a year ago, the expectation was that Amstel Gold Race might be the classic best-suited to his talents. Indeed, the initial plan was for him to alternate between the cobbles and the Ardennes each year in the early part of his career, but last year’s Ronde showing has – at least for now – shelved that idea.
“The Ronde is a race that suits me. With the distance and the difficulty, you’re talking about a real endurance race,” Benoot said. You know that a lot of things can happen but you simply don’t know when. So you have to choose the right moment – but I’m not going to reveal my plans here…”
Benoot will share the leadership of the Lotto-Soudal team with Jürgen Roelandts, though the team’s third option, Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Jens Debusschere, has been ruled out through injury.
“That won’t change too much,” Benoot said. “We’ll start with two protected riders instead of three, but it’s a shame that we don’t have Jens as an option for the final.”
Roelandts placed third in the 2013 Ronde by attacking ahead of the finale and then staying with Cancellara and Sagan when they bridged across to him over the Kwaremont. He hinted that Lotto-Soudal would have to be similarly inventive this time out.
“The way Sagan and Cancellara are going, they are going to be hard to follow. Especially Cancellara on the Oude Kwaremont: when he goes for it there, very few will be able to follow," Roelandts said. "So you need to go before that."