Another strong Classics performance at Dwars door Vlaanderen has propelled Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) onto the list of favourites for the Tour of Flanders on April 1. But being classified as a contender ahead of the event means little to Benoot, who says winning the title is the only thing that matters.
"Being a top favourite doesn't mean anything. It's the result on Sunday evening that matters the most. Mentally, I made a step forward since my [career-first] win in Strade Bianche. I'm full of confidence, and that will not be different on Sunday," Benoot said after finishing seventh in Waregem.
Just like in the Strade Bianche and E3 Harelbeke, Benoot was one of the strongest riders in the race. He wasn't rewarded with a podium result in E3 Harelbeke or Dwars door Vlaanderen, but a confident Benoot referred to several factors that should help him achieve that goal on Sunday in Oudenaarde.
For now, there's the consolation of being the strongest man in the race. "That was the feeling I had, yes," Benoot asserted, seemingly without the desire to sound pretentious.
Benoot knows that he's enjoying good form and he claims that he's still improving. "I'm confident that I'll be able to ride a good finale on Sunday. I started today with a lot of confidence, and I feel like I'm still improving a little bit," he said.
Without the support of teammates during the finale of the races, Benoot's chances were limited against a strong force like the Quick-Step Floors team. "There will be other riders, too. Quick-Step won almost everything the last few weeks. [Peter] Sagan will be confident, too. He's a decisive factor. Van Avermaet was good today. The usual suspects. Valverde? If he'll race. I think he'll be fed up with it after today. 'No puede', he said during the race," Benoot laughed.
The long distance of Tour of Flanders should work in Benoot's favour. The 24-year-old is known to have a big engine that should help him when the races are more than 250 kilometres. "Maybe I'll be outnumbered again, but it's different after 230, 240 or 250 kilometres. Today was only 180 kilometres. Due to the foul weather, the racing was hard enough. Otherwise, it would've been a sprint," Benoot said.
In the rain-soaked edition of Dwars door Vlaanderen, Benoot impressed during the ascent of the Côte de Trieu, the paved climb at 40 kilometres from the finish in Waregem, which is also known as the Knokteberg. He hammered up the Trieu and dropped all but one rider from an elite lead group with Greg Van Avermaet, Alejandro Valverde, John Degenkolb, Sep Vanmarcke, Gianni Moscon, Tony Martin, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Mads Pedersen, Zdenek Stybar and eventual winner Yves Lampaert.
Only Olympic champion Van Avermaet was able to hold his wheel - barely - gritting his teeth. "He often bites himself, so that's OK. It was a hard race. There hadn't been a breakaway, and that's something you don't often see; it results in the hardest race days," Benoot said. Still, Benoot's attack was impressive.
"Yes, yes. Maybe I should've taken a few more guys with me over there. If there would've been a Quick-Step rider with us, then we were gone. If you attack, it's not possible to constantly count how many guys are on the wheel. In my opinion, the faster you go, the better the riders that join you in the move.
"Van Avermaet was there, but there were six riders behind us. We kept riding but on the Varent they bridged up to us," Benoot said.
The Quick-Step Floors riders stated that with Benoot up front they had to bring this move back. "Of course, with Van Avermaet in the move. We were with two riders. They had to work for a while to get us," Benoot said.
Once the duo of Benoot and Van Avermaet were caught back at 25 kilometres from the finish on the cobbles of the Varent, Sep Vanmarcke powered forward on his terrain.
"At the end of the pavé sector, they bridged up to us and then the five were gone. The race was over. It's a pity," Benoot said.
He gave it another go during the ascent of the Vossenhol, but his move was neutralized. "It's normal that they reacted. The guys in our group weren't nobodies. There were no more sections left to close a gap of 30 seconds. On a two-kilometre-long climb, it's possible to do something. It's not Strade Bianche over here," Benoot said. At less than three kilometres from the finish, Benoot escaped the chase group together with Stybar. Benoot was beaten in the sprint for sixth place by the Czech, putting him in seventh place.
It wasn't to his advantage that he lacked teammates up front, and it bothered him. At the E3 Harelbeke, BMC and Quick-Step Floors had several riders in the lead group. In Dwars door Vlaanderen, he was isolated again, and he was fuming shortly after the race.
"Yes, but that's normal after a race. It's hard to race against Quick-Step - and then also Trek today with two riders. I needed to be lucky. I was alone. Our two best riders - those who can ride a finale - are [Andre] Greipel and [Jens] Keukeleire and they're out due to injury and illness. Nikolas [Maes] is ill, too. I've got less bullets to fire than several teammates together of course. That's the way it is. I have to be pleased with my current form, and I hope not to get ill myself," Benoot said.
That will surely play on his mind since his roommate Maes was confronted with stomach flu last night. When Benoot woke up on Wednesday, he was surprised to see that Maes wasn't in his bed. He received a text message from Maes, saying that he had gotten ill and the doctor advised him not to return to the room.
Without illness, Benoot will be one of the protagonists in the Tour of Flanders on Sunday. It'll be interesting to see whether he will still be outnumbered deep into the finale of a much longer race, or make a coalition with someone like Peter Sagan on the cobbles of the Oude Kwaremont or Paterberg climbs.
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