Following four seasons as a support act in the QuickStep spring line-up, Sylvain Chavanel has a rare opportunity to top the bill at the Tour of Flanders, even if the Frenchman was reluctant to make any bold statements of intent before taking to the main stage on Sunday.
With leading player Tom Boonen struggling for form in the wake of an early-season beset by injury and illness, Omega Pharma-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere acknowledged that the "situation is completely different this year" and said that his team would not be built solely around Boonen at this year's Ronde.
After impressing at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Milan-San Remo and E3 Harelbeke, and then winning the Three Days of De Panne, Chavanel is the man most likely to step into the leadership role should Boonen falter, but he steadfastly refused to talk up his position when he met the press in Nazareth on Friday afternoon.
"Everybody is saying that Tom isn't in condition but he still won the sprint in Harelbeke behind the break that I was in," Chavanel said cagily. "It's all well and good to talk about form today, but what really counts is what happens on Sunday. They are two different things and it's always better to do your talking on the road."
Chavanel has tended to perform a playmaking role for Omega Pharma-QuickStep, going on the offensive from distance in a bid to soften up the opposition before Boonen takes over in the finale. For all of self-sacrifice involved, it is still an approach that has almost paid dividends for Chavanel himself in the past.
At the Ronde in 2011, for instance, Chavanel sparked the attacking in the final phase of the race to prepare the way for Boonen, and yet he still had the wherewithal to follow the winning move in the closing kilometres, losing out only in a tight sprint to Nick Nuyens.
In recent weeks, at both Het Nieuwsblad and Milan-San Remo, Chavanel again showed few inhibitions about seizing the initiative but with a potentially different role in the team at the Tour of Flanders, might his approach change this weekend?
"I'm not going to reveal my tactics now but I think I've already anticipated the moves in years gone by," Chavanel said, smiling: "I'm saying nothing.
"Everything will depend on the circumstances of the race really. Sometimes it's good to take the initiative and other times it's not so good. That's something you decide in the race itself.
"I have to be there in the finale to do whatever is required. I'm a protected rider on the team but then afterwards, on paper, I don't have the speed in a sprint that Tom Boonen has."
A golden opportunity
Considering Chavanel's age (he turns 34 in June), his fine recent form and Boonen's hampered build-up, there is a distinct sense that he might never have a better opportunity to win a Classic than this year. For all his attacking during his four springs at QuickStep to date, Chavanel's biggest one-day wins date back to his time at Cofidis, when he won Dwars Door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl in 2008. However, he denied that he was felt under pressure to inscribe a Classic to a palmares that is perhaps thinner than it ought to be.
"Flanders is not necessarily an obsession but it's a race that I'm becoming more and more attached to as the years go by," Chavanel said. "The cobbled classics are races that I only really discovered at 28 years of age, so I've less experience than certain riders in these races but on the other hand, maybe I've learnt more quickly than other riders because I've been riding for Patrick Lefevere's team. There's a lot of experience on this team and that's helped me."
If Chavanel does ultimately lead the line for what is – arguably – the strongest team in Sunday's race, he is mindful that the favourites are to be found elsewhere. Nonetheless, he quietly noted that Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara's duel could prove counter-productive for both men.
"You can't focus just on two riders like that," Chavanel said. "We're racing at world level and the standard is very, very high. And perhaps the marking between Sagan and Cancellara might work to the benefit of another rider – me, I hope. So much the better if that's the case…"
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