Not bad for a first attempt. Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida) had never raced on the cobbles of Flanders as a professional rider until Sunday's concluding stage of the BinckBank Tour, and, by late afternoon, the experience had grown on him.
It helped, of course, that he successfully limited his losses to stage winner Michael Matthews (Sunweb) to secure overall victory in the week-long race.
"It was my first experience on the cobbles today and I quite enjoyed it, even though it was a really tough stage," Mohoric said in the town hall in Geraardsbergen after the podium ceremonies had been completed.
At 220km in length, the grand finale of the BinckBank Tour provided a bracing primer in the terrain Mohoric might face if he turns his attention to the Classics next spring. The stage incorporated three laps of a circuit built around the Muur and the Bosberg. For good measure, the day finished with a nasty drag up the cobbled road that leads to the base of the Muur proper.
Mohoric began the stage with a buffer of 30 seconds in the overall standings, and he spent the last hour of racing shutting down the repeated attacks of Sunweb, Quick-Step and Lotto Soudal. He paid for his efforts on the last kick to the line, coming home in 13th place, 13 seconds down on Matthews, but it was enough to keep him in the overall lead by five seconds.
"I fought hard to win the GC, and in the end I managed to pull it off. I responded to all the attacks from Tim Wellens [Lotto Soudal], Søren Kragh Andersen [Sunweb] and the others," said Mohoric, who was relatively isolated in the select leading group and cut his cloth accordingly. Rather than jump on every move, he sagely opted to pick and choose his targets.
"I was paying attention to the five strongest guys, and I tried to follow the moves from the riders who had the most teammates because if they went, there wouldn't be any help to bring them back."
Perhaps the most dangerous moment came on the Bosberg, when Matthews stole away in a group that also featured Wellens and Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors), but the race came back together, and Mohoric proceeded to hang on grimly in the closing kilometres.
"Andersen really tried many, many times, and I just missed a group on the Muur, and so I had to come back on my own from the second group, and on the next cobbled climb [the Bosberg], I couldn't follow," said Mohoric.
Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step) and Jasper Stuyven’s (Trek-Segafredo) crashes on stage 6 in Sittard-Geleen led to some dark muttering that Mohoric's riding style had been to blame, but in his press conference on Sunday, Mohoric politely but firmly rebuffed the idea that he had misread the terms of engagement during the final weekend's Classics-style racing.
"I think the guys are just not used to me yet. I was just as aggressive as they were. I think in Belgium if you show them that they can take your space, then they'll take advantage of that, so you have to stand up for yourself," Mohoric said.
"I saw some negative comments in the Belgian press about Lampaert's crash. I have to say that he was in front of me when he crashed, and he crashed on his own. I barely avoided him, so he almost crashed me. I can proudly say that I have never crashed anybody in the peloton, and I have no intention of doing so."
While Mohoric defended his overall lead assuredly amid the cut and thrust of the final two stages, his win was forged in rather more sedate circumstances when he was part of the five-man break that surprisingly defied the sprinters in Antwerp on stage 3. It had been, Mohoric agreed, a critical error to hand him such a buffer ahead of the twisting finishing circuit.
"When they gave us three minutes' advantage with 70km to go – that's only one-and-a-half hours of riding – it was too much of a gap," Mohoric said. "I think it was impossible to bring a group like that back in an hour-and-a-half of racing, especially because the finishing circuit was very technical."
Mohoric's back catalogue includes stage wins at the Vuelta a España and the Giro d'Italia, as well as world titles at junior and under-23 level, but he described his BinckBank Tour victory as the most important of his career.
And, having developed a feel for the mores of Belgian racing, he might be tempted back next spring.
"I kind of liked it," Mohoric said. "We'll see next year how the programme is decided with the sports directors. I would like to come here for the Belgian Classics, like the Ronde and maybe even Paris-Roubaix."
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