Keukeleire taking aim at first Classics victory in 2018

After seven years with the Australian-based Orica teams and a handful of close calls in the Classics, Jens Keukeleire is hoping his move this season to the Belgian team Lotto Soudal will be the extra lift he needs to climb onto a podium's top step this spring.

"It's strange to say, but it almost feels like coming home," the 29-year-old Belgian told Cyclingnews before the start of stage 6 at the Vuelta a San Juan. "It's a Belgian team, my first time as a professional rider, and so far it's everything I hoped it would be."

Keukeleire is hoping that the home-spun feeling translates into the win he narrowly missed out on last spring when he escaped with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) near the end of Gent-Wevelgem, but then fell to the Olympic champion in the two-up sprint.

Orica has a formidable Classics squad, but the spring races are a staple of Belgian cycling, and Keukeleire believes the added emphasis can make a difference.

"I think so," Keukeleire told Cyclingnews when asked if moving to Lotto was an advantage in the Classics. "We've been progressing a lot the last four or five years with Orica, but still I think doing especially the cobbled Classics with a Belgian team is, I wouldn't say another level, but it is different. It's more important I think."

Keukeleire has adjusted his goals accordingly.

"I'll be happy if I win one one-day race between Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Paris-Roubaix," he said. "I think that has to be a goal for me. I came very close last year and then I got sick, so I didn't get a chance to do the Tour of Flanders, but I think that's a goal that I have to set for myself."

There is one race Keukeleire would especially like to add to his palmares.

"Roubaix, Paris-Roubaix," he said when asked to pick a Classic if he could only win one. "I always had a special feeling about the race. I've done it ever since I was a U23. I did it three years when I was under 23, and I remember the feeling of making the selection was really special. More special than the feeling I had for Flanders. That has always stayed with me until now."

Keukeleire has raced Paris-Roubaix every year since signing with French Pro Continental team Cofidis in 2010, with his best finish there coming in 2015 when he made the final selection and finished sixth in the sprint in Roubaix velodrome, where John Degenkolb took the win.

It was a result that proved Keukeleire had the skills to conquer the cobbles and the strength to stick with the best as the race of attrition took its toll on the peloton. Now he's got an added confidence boost of racing on a Belgian squad that is primed for the Classics.

But for now, Keukeleire's Classics aspirations will sit on the back burner as he competes with Lotto Soudal at the Vuelta a San Juan, his first race in Argentina since competing at the Tour de San Luis in 2014. So far this week his best result has been seventh in the chaotic stage 4 sprint in Villa San Augustin.

"I'm happy to be here at this race," he said. "Four years ago it wasn't here, it was in San Luis, but I always wanted to come back. It's a huge difference with Europe, not only the weather but also I think just the vibe in the bunch; it's not so stressful. We've been having some really nice races so far."

But the niceties are like to come to an end Saturday in Argentina, as crosswinds will play havoc with the peloton and could turn what on paper should be a day for the sprinters into a GC battle or a breakaway raid.

"It's a bit windy today," he wryly observed while getting ready for the start. "We tried a couple of times the last couple of days, and I think we have to try and do something again today. We'll see how it goes in the final, but I'm keen to do a hard race and to do the sprint, so we'll see."

It will also be a good test for him and his new Belgian squad.

"We're all Belgian riders here, so I think in Belgium it's impossible to grow up not riding in the crosswinds at least once in a while," he said. "We've done it a lot, and everybody who is here is keen to give it a go and try and make some splits in the crosswinds. We'll try again today. I think today might be really, really ideal for us."

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.