With his first professional victory under his belt, Tiesj Benoot is flying both in terms of form and confidence ahead of the Tour of Flanders, according to Lotto Soudal directeur sportif Marc Sergeant.
The young Belgian has carried a heavy burden of expectation ever since he finished fifth as a neo-pro at the 2015 Tour of Flanders, which only intensified the longer he went without raising his arms.
Benoot would try to keep the pressure at bay by preaching a message of quality over quantity - he could do a calendar full of minor races to pick up wins, he said, but they wouldn't be worth as much as one big one. True to his word, he claimed Strade Bianche with a spectacular ride three weeks ago.
"I think that liberated him," Sergeant told Cyclingnews at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
"That race, with those riders behind him… he had the feeling of 'OK, I'm the strongest here today'. That was a big win for him, for the team as well of course, but that gave him such self-confidence for the next races."
Asked if he thought the pressure had ever started to affect his young rider, despite the cool exterior, Sergeant said it had.
"Although he denied it, I think it was still working on his system. You know, it was always the question, 'when are you going to win your first race?' That's an annoying question. But he did what he promised; he said 'if I win one, it'll be a big one'. And it was a huge one."
Benoot backed up Strade Bianche with a remarkable fourth-place overall at Tirreno-Adriatico in a field of seasoned general classification riders. Now in his native Flanders for the cobbled classics, he finished fifth at E3 Harelbeke, confirming his status as one of the big names for De Ronde next Sunday.
"Flanders is his favourite race, I think, in his head. That's where he's from," said Sergeant, with Benoot also tipped for success in the Ardennes of Wallonia.
"He's in great shape, I hope he has luck on his side, no crashes, no illness. He can win."
To do that, Benoot must crack the collective strength of Quick-Step Floors. The only other Belgian WorldTour team, Sergeant was graciously honest in describing his rivals as the strongest cobbled classics squad. The evidence was certainly hard to ignore at Sunday's E3 Harelbeke, won by Niki Terpstra.
"In Harelbeke it was a strange situation with the crash – they had all their riders in the first group, and they took advantage. But that's the way you win races. But you need strong guys. Lampaert had to let him [Terpstra] go in the end, and then with three kilometres to go, with eight or nine seconds, still, he continues and he wins. What can you say? The best man won.
"They still have a great team for the upcoming races but we have to dare and go for ourselves. If it's a race like Harelbeke, the best ones will come up to the top, and if you have the luck to be in the group with a couple of fast guys, then you can try something in the last kilometres."
Sergeant added that, whatever happens now, Benoot's season is already a success. With the legs clearly there, that might just be the key to capturing that uninhibited spirit with which he burst onto the scene three years ago.
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