Team Blanco may have rescued their Flemish Classics last week at Paris-Roubaix with Sep Vanmarcke's runner-up placing to Fabian Cancellara, but directeur sportif Erik Dekker thinks that there are now many similarities now to what the squad was facing leading into the Tour of Flanders.
The Dutch team heads into the biggest race of the year on home turf, Amstel Gold Race on Sunday, with a line-up spearheaded by Bauke Mollema and young-gun Tom-Jelte Slagter.
Prior to Flanders, Blanco's best showings at Gent - Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke netted the team 23rd with Lars Boom and 49th with Maarten Tjallingii respectively. It was a change of fortunes for a team that took wins from the Tour Down Under, Tour Méditerranéen, Volta ao Algarve, Tour du Haut Var, Tour de Langkawi to Clasica de Almeria before their momentum slowed.
"Cycling is never easy. There are too many competitors for that but the start of the season was impressive, yes," Dekker conceded to Cyclingnews on the eve of Amstel Gold in Maastricht.
"Before Flanders we were not too good in preparation at Gent-Wevelgem and Harelbeke," the event's 2001 winner over Lance Armstrong continued. "And we didn't do too good at Pais Vasco last week. But the team is good. The guys are fit, they are full of morale, of course - the sunny weather and the home country - but it looks a lot better than last week. It's a different race of course. We had also two really sick guys but they are fit now again. But we are looking forward to tomorrow and are curious as to how it turns out."
A lot of that curiosity stems from the fortunes of Slagter who will be making his debut. This year's surprise Tour Down Under victor has not been as standout as he was in January, but there is no doubt that the course suits him, if he can handle the distance. It's a similar outlook that the team had leading into Milan-San Remo last month but Dekker where said that: "the cold changed everything for him," and Slagter finished with a DNF. Amstel Gold Race at 251km under sunny 21 degree skies, may yet prove to be a different story.
"In the future for sure because the climbs really suit him," said Dekker. "But the distance at this level, we don't know.
"It's the first time he's raced here so it will be an adventure for him."
Given Dekker's own history with the Amstel Gold Race, he has a unique perspective on just what winning on Sunday could mean for the team which is looking for a new sponsor, following the collapse of the long-term partnership with Rabobank. Dekker's name too has cropped up more than once with the cleansing process continuing within the Dutch Federation, but he said that proving that Blanco was part of the new era of Dutch cycling was more than about crossing the finish line first.
"The final result is important but also the road to that success is important," he explained. "For tomorrow I think we have 250km to show ourselves to the Dutch audience and to the world."
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