At first, Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma) thought he had managed to slip clear alone, but he quickly realised that he had the worst kind of company for the final two kilometres of Dwars door Vlaanderen. Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) was tucked onto his rear wheel, and the likelihood of beating the Dutchman in a two-up sprint in Waregem lay somewhere between slim and none.
Even so, Benoot, an economics graduate from the University of Ghent, quickly crunched the numbers and decided it was worth continuing with his effort. Collaborating with Van der Poel would, at the very least, guarantee a podium finish, and so it proved, as he came home in second place, while Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) led the chasers across the line to place third.
"I thought I was alone for a few seconds but then Mathieu was in my wheel, so I knew it would be a bit difficult," Benoot said. "Then I had to choose what to do. I rode on, because if I let the rest return then it would have been difficult for me anyway. This way, I had the best chance of winning, if Mathieu made a wrong gear change or something. I took one more turn and then I gambled after that."
Benoot, Van der Poel and Pidcock went clear on the climb of Berg Ten Houte with some 70km remaining in the company of Ben Turner (Ineos Grenadiers), Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Soudal) and Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ). They later picked up early escapees Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Kelland O'Brien (BikeExchange-Jayco), and this eight-man group would go all the way to the finish.
For 60km or so, they had little choice but to collaborate. Two-time Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), who missed the split on Berg Ten Houte, was making a spirited pursuit behind and snatched news of his fight back seemed to encourage unity of purpose among the eight leaders over the remainder of the day's climbs.
Their alliance only began to fray on the Nokereberg, where Van der Poel showcased his strength, while Campenaerts – armed with a 58-tooth chainring – made several efforts to avoid a sprint finish. Benoot was his companion on one of those raids, but they were reeled in by Küng.
"It was a really long final, and I think it was a really nice race, with a tense finish," said Benoot. "I gambled a bit and I went a few times all in, especially with the last attack. Stefan Küng was pulling a long time behind me and Victor, so that was maybe a better chance for me to win a sprint than with Mathieu."
Benoot's thoughts now turn to the Tour of Flanders, where he and Christophe Laporte will line up as the most valuable members of Wout van Aert's supporting cast. Ronde history is littered, of course, with lieutenants who have suddenly found themselves promoted in rank by the circumstances of the race and Benoot – fifth on his debut in 2015 – was reassured by his performance here. Van Aert, the favourite for the Ronde after his E3 Saxo Bank Classic victory, opted to forgo Dwars door Vlaanderen, but Benoot was glad of the additional racing miles.
"If I wanted to keep something in the tank [for the Tour of Flanders], I'd have stayed home and gone training today," said Benoot. "The last weekend with the E3 and Gent-Wevelgem brought me the necessary depth for the final, and that's positive for Sunday."
Asked who was most likely to deny Jumbo-Visma in Oudenaarde, meanwhile, Benoot felt the answer was self-evident. "I think I would say Van der Poel," he said. "I think it speaks for itself."
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.