In years past, Niki Terpstra has played the role of wing-man at such occasions, but fresh from solo victory at last week's Tour of Flanders, he found himself centre stage as Quick-Step Floors met the press ahead of Paris-Roubaix on Thursday evening.
The event took place in a shopping centre in Kortrijk, which meant that it was effectively open to the public. Two elderly women who managed to steal inside the velvet rope seemed to evince a particular preference for local rider Yves Lampaert, but the sizeable Dutch delegation in attendance had eyes and ears only for Terpstra. He had not, he confirmed, received a telephone call of congratulations from his prime minister or king, but "the mayor was at my front door yesterday."
Quick-Step have been the dominant force in the cobbled Classics to this point, to the extent that the old Henry Ford line about the Model T could almost be applied to Paris-Roubaix: the winner in the velodrome on Sunday could be just about anybody provided he is wearing a blue jersey.
The Hell of the North is rarely that simple, of course, nor is the hierarchy at Quick-Step Floors. Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar worked peerlessly in setting up Terpstra's Ronde victory last weekend, for instance, but that does not mean that the roles will necessarily be reversed on the rocky road to Roubaix. The circumstances of the race will again dictate the leadership structure.
"If it's possible, I'll work to help them, but if I have my own chance, I will take it also," Terpstra said. "We'll see in the race who in the team feels good. We saw last week, we had four riders in the final who all felt good, and then it was all about who went in the right move."
Gilbert is riding Paris-Roubaix for the first time since 2007, but despite his relative inexperience in the race, he will set out from Compiègne with considerable ambition. Terpstra, for one, did not feel that his teammate would require any particular guidance over the pavé on Sunday.
"I haven't given him any advice yet, but we've just arrived ahead of the race, so we'll talk about Roubaix in the coming days," Terpstra said. "He's not a rookie, though, he already did Paris-Roubaix a while ago. I don't think I'll have to explain too much to him, he's an experienced rider."
Terpstra has been identified by his former teammate Boonen as the favourite for Paris-Roubaix, and in his new role as a pundit, Tommeke has not shied away from ruffling some feathers. In a television appearance on Wednesday night, Boonen made robust criticism of Peter Sagan's complaint that riders had refused to help him chase Terpstra's winning move at the Tour of Flanders.
Terpstra has a reputation as a forthright speaker, but he adopted a diplomatic line when asked about Sagan, though the pair had clashed in similar circumstances in the finale of Gent-Wevelgem a year ago. This year, Terpstra's haul of victories – the Ronde, E3 Harelbeke and Le Samyn – speak for themselves.
"Actually I didn't re-watch the race on Sunday completely so I don't exactly know what he means. If everybody is fresh, they'll cooperate. Maybe if they're tired, they won't. It depends on the moment in the race, so I can't judge," Terpstra said. "It's just cycling: if somebody close the gap for Peter, then maybe Peter will win the race and what's in it for the other, then? I think that's cycling. Sometimes it's also a game of chess.
"I don't know what I have to expect from our rivals on Sunday, but it's a new chance for everybody, for all the teams. I think we will have some big opponents."
Terpstra and his Quick-Step team will reconnoitre the sectors of pavé on Friday morning, but the word from teams who have assessed the cobbles is that recent heavy rain will render some sections far more treacherous than in years past. Although the forecast looks to be for clement weather on Sunday, the worst of the roads will not have dried out.
"I'm not concerned about it, but I'm curious about what's going to happen. If it's going to be wet, it's going to be my first wet Paris-Roubaix," Terpstra said. "This week there was already a lot of water on the road and sections, so even if it's dry on Sunday, the cobbles are going to be wet at some point. 2016 was also a dry edition, but there were I think 20 metres that were wet, and my race ended there because of a massive crash."
Not that the slings and arrows of the Queen of the Classics will hold any particular fears for Terpstra, even though he has been forced to abandon each of the past two editions due to crashes. The risks, it seems, are part of the charm. "It's a nasty race and that's why I love it," Terpstra smiled. "It's tough. It's a cool race."
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