Tiesj Benoot’s performances had been turning heads in the early weeks of his professional career but surely few outside of his Lotto-Soudal team could have anticipated a Tour of Flanders debut quite like this one.
The late attack that saw Benoot help himself to fifth place in Oudenaarde, 36 seconds down on winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), also marked the moment that he graduated from being mentioned in despatches to earning headlines of his own.
There are no newspapers in Belgium on Easter Monday but on crossing the finish line Benoot was briskly ushered towards Sporza’s temporary studio on the square, where he joined former Ronde winners Eddy Planckaert and Nick Nuyens to discuss his race live on air. “He’s got a sprint too, he’s the new man for the Classics,” Planckaert said enthusiastically.
Still only 21 years of age and an economics student at the University of Ghent, the external assumption was that Benoot was included in the Lotto team primarily to gain experience for future years. Yet he was prominent on the Taaienberg and again hit the front on the Kruisberg, shortly before Kristoff’s winning move in the company of Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep) took shape.
“I guess I can’t complain,” Benoot said after the finish. “I hid myself all day and then the second time up Kwaremont I saw I was with the best and I was happy to be there. Then after that it was a question of following, following, following until the Taaienberg.”
In keeping with recent tradition, Lotto-Soudal maintained a laudably aggressive presence on Sunday, constantly looking to break open an otherwise cautious and controlled race. After Lars Bak joined the early break, André Greipel made a number of forceful attempts before Benoot hit the front in the final 35 kilometres in an attempt to lay the groundwork for Jürgen Roelandts.
“The team had given me the order to follow the favourites from the Taaienberg. I thought that was a bit ambitious but I felt very good,” Benoot said. “I accelerated on the Kruisberg, but when Kristoff and Terpstra attacked afterwards, there was nothing to be done to follow them.”
Benoot and Roelandts were unable to track Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) when they broke clear of the chasing group on the Paterberg, but they both looked to slip away in the closing kilometres.
“As a team, we made the race and Jürgen advised me to try something again in the finale,” said Benoot. "2.5km from the end I jumped by myself. There was no reaction and I took a nice lead.”
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A run of spring results that include sixth at Dwars door Vlaanderen, fourth at Le Samyn and third at Handzame Classic drew comparisons with Johan Museeuw from some quarters of the Flemish press, though they seemed misplaced. Lars Boom (Astana), who finished just behind Benoot in sixth, reached for a more contemporary allusion on Sunday afternoon: “He’s one of the new talents who could fill the place of Boonen.”
Indeed, the absence of home favourite Tom Boonen from the Tour of Flanders for the first time since 2001 was a reminder to Belgian fans that their man’s career will not endure indefinitely, and there seemed something a crisis of identity among locals milling around the start in Bruges on Sunday.
Without Boonen, the Etixx-QuickStep team bus did not hold quite the same lure as before but the floating Flemish voters seemed unsure of where else to place their loyalties, with Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo), Stijn Devolder (Trek) and Van Avermaet failing to poll support anywhere near ‘Tommeke’s’ usual numbers.
Given his age profile and his immense potential, it’s a void that could eventually be filled by Benoot. In his final year as an amateur, he showed his range by finishing third in the under-23 Ronde and eighth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, before taking third overall at the mountainous Ronde de l’Isard stage race despite spending much of the race working in the service of overall winner and teammate Louis Vervaeke.
Benoot has himself wondered if Amstel Gold Race might be the classic that best suits his talents, but when he graduated from Lotto’s under-23 squad to the WorldTour set-up during the winter, manager Marc Sergeant surprised him by telling him that he was in the long list for the Flemish classics. A solid outing at E3 Harelbeke last week confirmed his spot for the Ronde.
“He’s a fighter, someone who can get his teeth into things,” Sergeant said on Sunday evening. “During the winter I told him that he would ride deep into the finale of the Flemish classics this year. He wondered how I could tell. I told him that I’m 55 years old and I have enough experience in cycling to know.
“I based the decision to pick him on data but also because of his perseverance. He’s willing to learn, as we see when he arrives on training camps with his textbooks. He didn’t want to drop his studies, and these days you can plan it around racing.”
Benoot’s on-the-road lessons will continue next weekend. On the back of his Flanders display, Sergeant admitted that he would be loath to leave him on the side-lines for Paris-Roubaix. “I’ll ride Roubaix and then I’ll take a break,” Benoot said. “After that, we’ll plan the rest of my season.”
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