This wasn't the ending Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) had in mind. In 2008, as a 14-year-old schoolboy at Don Bosco college in Zwijnaarde, he was given the assignment of composing a piece of science-fiction for his Dutch class. His chosen theme was the 2018 Tour of Flanders. The winner, inevitably, was one T. Benoot.
In the here and now on Sunday, however, Benoot had to settle for 8th place in the Ronde behind the lone winner Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), who punched his way clear on the Kruisberg with 26 kilometres to go, never to be seen again.
Benoot reached Oudenaarde 25 seconds down as part of an elite chasing group. His disappointment was palpable as he wheeled to a halt and wiped the grime from his face at the roadside, though he looked to draw some solace from his afternoon when a small group of reporters knotted around him.
"I think Niki was the strongest, that was clear," Benoot said softly. "Behind him, I think I was one of the three strongest riders. You need to have a bit of luck too. Today I gave everything. I think I finished 8th, so it's not the big result I wanted, but I was there with the favourites and confirmed my shape."
Belgium being Belgium, the young Benoot's essay had been reproduced in full on the eve of the Ronde in Saturday's edition of Het Nieuwsblad. In the fictional version, he clipped away in the final two kilometres to defeat an aging Tom Boonen. In reality, with Tommeke already retired, Benoot lined up in Antwerp on Sunday among those tipped to assume the mantle left behind by the three-time winner of the Ronde.
Heartened by his first professional victory at Strade Bianche last month, Benoot has raced on Flemish roads this spring with an assurance that belies his relative youth, placing 5th in Harelbeke and 7th at Dwars door Vlaanderen, and he entered the race with justified expectations of improving on his 5th place on his Ronde debut in 2015.
On a gloomy afternoon in East Flanders, Benoot's red jersey seemed prominent each time the road climbed in the final 80 kilometres. On the Koppenberg and Taaienberg, his pedalling was as fluid as the gradient and the speed allowed, but, like everybody else, he did not dare follow when Terpstra accelerated viciously on the false flat at the top of the Kruisberg.
In the final phase of the race, another, more recent Benoot prediction about the 2018 Ronde came to pass. Last week, he suggested that his best and perhaps only hope of winning would be to go clear in the company of a Quick-Step rider. With Terpstra now up the road, and Quick-Step's Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar policing the chase, he knew he was racing for a podium place at best.
The attention to detail in Benoot's teenage composition offers a fascinating portrait of the rider as a young man. In his fictionalised 2018 Tour of Flanders, for instance, Boonen and Greg Van Avermaet are teammates on Team High Road, because, as Benoot explained to Het Nieuwsblad, "In those years, High Road was the next big thing of cycling teams."
Benoot assigned himself, meanwhile, to a team called Lotto-QuickStep, formed following an imagined merger between Belgium's two biggest squads. How he could have done with such a union on Sunday.
"It was really difficult against Quick-Step," Benoot said. "Zdenek Stybar attacked first on the Kruisberg and then it was Niki Terpstra who went after Vincenzo Nibali. I was a bit boxed in so I couldn't immediately respond, but Terpstra distanced Nibali quickly, which says a lot about how strong he was."
Benoot, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), began the race as the men most likely to break Quick-Step's stranglehold, but they were marooned helplessly behind a startlingly strong Terpstra over the Kwaremont and Paterberg. On the run-in to Oudenaarde, earlier escapee Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) held on for second place, while Gilbert helped himself to the third step of the podium, pointing to his Quick-Step jersey as he crossed the line.
"I was perhaps the best in our small group, but I have to settle for 8th place," Benoot said. "It's still a disappointment because when you're among the three strongest riders, you aim to be on the podium."
The Tour of Flanders brought the curtain down on Benoot's programme of cobbled races, but the long opening phase of his season is by no means over. He travels to a training camp in Sierra Nevada this week, before returning to race Brabantse Pijl and the Ardennes Classics later in the month. The 2018 Ronde has come and gone, but the Spring might yet have a different ending.
"I'm looking forward to the next part of the spring, but first some mental rest in Spain," Benoot said. "Afterwards we'll see what's possible in the Ardennes races."
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