Bjorg Lambrecht (Lotto Soudal) may only be 22, and in only his second year in the WorldTour, but if he's somewhere in the running for the overall of the Tour de Pologne by the end of this week, don't be too surprised.
The similarities between Pologne's short, punchy, wooded climbs and those of the Ardennes are often commented on, and the young Belgian has already put in a hugely promising series of rides in Belgium's hilly Classics this spring.
Fifth at the Brabantse Pijl, sixth at Amstel Gold and fourth at Flèche Wallonne this April, as well as being a former under-23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner, Lambrecht's climbing talents may well come to the fore on Tuesday's ultra-steep, unprecedented ascent of Kocierz in Poland. And after that, who knows?
"I had a good first stage, and I hope I can keep that going today [Sunday] and tomorrow," Lambrecht told Cyclingnews ahead of stage 2. "The important thing in these first three stages is not to lose time."
Recent Tour de Pologne history for Belgian climbers has certainly been favourable, and 18th overall at last year's race was an excellent result for Lambrecht in his first year as a pro – and at WorldTour level, too. In 2017, Bahrain-Merida's Dylan Teuns – then with BMC – claimed third at Flèche Wallonne in April, and then went on to win both the Tour de Wallonie and the Tour de Pologne – his first WorldTour victory – as part of a golden summer of success for the Belgian, who also recently won a stage at this year's Tour de France.
Lambrecht – the U23 world championship silver medallist last year in Austria – is still on the hunt for his first pro win, and he admits that there are "definite similarities between here and the Ardennes".
"If my condition is good enough, then I have a chance for a good GC and a stage win would be really nice. Plus this race is very important for our sponsor, Soudal," Lambrecht said. "But there are three of us in the team with possible GC chances here, so, after stage four, we'll decide what we do and how we play it."
Pologne is also a build-up event for the Vuelta a Espana for Lambrecht, and he regards it as a key element in his form-building for the Spanish Grand Tour.
"I've not raced for quite a while, and I've been doing altitude training in Livigno, so this race should be ideal for the higher heart-rates and everything. Yesterday [stage 1 – a bunch sprint], that certainly wasn't a problem."
Lambrecht had time on Saturday evening to look at a video of how another up-and-coming Belgian, Remco Evenepoel (Deceunink-QuickStep), put in a brilliant performance in Spain to win the Clasica San Sebastian.
"I knew he was already a real phenomenon," said Lambrecht. "I never rode with him personally before turning pro in races because he's three years younger than me. But I know guys that have, and they're very impressed.
"Now you see what he's doing with the pros and it's unbelievable. He's playing with the pros and he's only 19."
As for Lambrecht's chances in Poland, team director Mario Aerts told Cyclingnews that although the altitude is high, the parcours are not extreme.
"Of course, every team has a GC racer, but it's not like in some events where we think, 'Heck, what can we do here?'
"Bjorg's come off altitude training, so he's not at his peak, but a lot of guys are starting out [the second part of the season] here, too. We can afford to be ambitious," said Aerts.
A former winner of Flèche Wallonne, in 2002, as well as taking third in the legendary snow-blighted edition of the race in 1999, Aerts added: "I think stage four will be quite similar to how Flèche Wallonne plays out normally: everybody will get to the foot of the climb together and then we'll see what happens."
Aerts confirmed that Lambrecht will return to altitude for another week in Sierra Nevada in southern Spain after finishing racing at the Tour de Pologne. The team used the same strategy, he said, with Cadel Evans a few years back: training for three weeks at altitude, then racing a week-long event, then returning to altitude for another week before the Grand Tour itself.
"If it doesn't work out, then we can change it. It's now, when he's young, that we can experiment a bit," Aerts said.
One area where Lambrecht is already exactly where the team want him to be is his positioning in the peloton. Slightly unusually for a young climber, Lambrecht doesn't have a more experienced rider sherpa-ing him, but, Aerts said, that's because he's capable of following anyone in the bunch.
"It's very impressive. Of course, we help him, but he doesn't need a lot of teammates around him – and, in fact, he doesn't even like it."
As for the Kocierz climb, Lotto Soudal's Polish racer Tomasz Marcyzinski, also racing in Poland this week, has been to scout out the ascent and kept his team informed.
"It's very hard for 800 metres, and then a little bit up and down," Lambrecht said. "If I can get up the steep part OK, then hopefully I'll be able to sort myself out in the sprint. But first I have to survive 800 metres – and then we'll see."
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