For a man learning the trade of a Classics rider, the finale of February’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was a rather useful spot of fieldwork for Mike Teunissen (Team Sunweb). It went unnoticed to many, but the Dutch youngster was the last man to remain in contact with the elite trio of Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke in the closing stages, only shaken loose on the penultimate section of cobbles at the Paddestraat.
"It was quite a shame I lost contact with the guys because if I'd hung on there, I don't think they'd had have dropped me after that," Teunissen told Cyclingnews. "There was a headwind on Lange Munte so I probably could have hung on there as well, and then I could have been at least fourth."
In the event, Teunissen reached Ghent in 12th place, finishing in the chase group that formed on the run-in, but his performance was all the more striking given that he had spent much of the race off the front as part of the day's early break. He perhaps surprised even himself by matching Sagan et al for so long after being caught, but being in close proximity to the strongmen was also sobering. The gap between the elite and the rest is a daunting one.
"It is a step, and it's hard to say how big is that step," Teunissen said. "Finishing in the first group is nice, but being with the best guys is such a big difference. Everybody knows at Nieuwsblad that the Taaienberg is where the difference is made, and those guys are there every time. They always can attack there. For me and other guys around me, we have to be lucky to be there in that position and then good enough to follow. And then you have to follow the three or four final efforts after that. Those guys can do that every time."
Teunissen swapped LottoNL-Jumbo for Sunweb over the winter, reasoning that his new team would offer greater freedom in the cobbled Classics. At Lotto, he was tasked primarily with laying the groundwork for Vanmarcke early in the race. At Sunweb, the idea is that he will enjoy greater flexibility, and the departure of John Degenkolb to Trek-Segafredo has created a less hierarchical Classics unit at Sunweb. At Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, for instance, Michael Matthews lined out as leader, but Teunissen was not tethered to team duties, going to place 16th in Waregem in the main chasing group.
"Last year I was having to do things early in the race and then afterwards I would hear that I did not show enough or was not good enough or things like that," Teunissen said. "At Sunweb, with the team we have for the classics, I can do whatever I want. I get the role that suits me, even though of course when Michael is here, there are different scenarios where I can help in the finals."
A native of Ysselsteyn in Limburg, Teunissen seemed destined for a professional career from an early age, but as he came through the ranks he continued to flit between road and cyclo-cross, never quite settling wholeheartedly on one or the other. A world cyclo-cross title as an under-23 in 2013 seemed to convince Teunissen that his future lay in the fields, but his sparkling 2014 road season, where he won the under-23 editions of Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Tours, persuaded him to turn professional on the road with LottoNL-Jumbo.
"From when I was junior, it was always the big question mark for me because I knew I couldn't do them both and I would have to choose in the end. But in the juniors I couldn't choose, I wanted to do them both, and at under-23 it was the same," Teunissen said. "When I became world champion, it really felt I could make a good career in cyclo-cross, but later I also saw that I had no chance against Wout Van Aert and Mathieu Van der Poel: I realised that on the technical stuff I wasn't good enough. Then luckily, the last year on the road as an under-23 went really well, and that made my decision for me."
Still only 24, Teunissen maintains that his divided attentions as an under-23 rider mean that he has greater margin for improvement than might otherwise be expected for a rider of his age. After being sent to the Ardennes in his first year as a professional in 2015, this is only Teunissen's second tilt at a full series of cobbled Classics. As a consequence, his Spring campaign is as much about banking experience as it is about picking up results.
"Of course, it's always nice to say I want to have a top ten place or something, but I already noticed last year that it's quite a high level in the Classics," he said. "Being there in the third or fourth group is doable, but being there in the final with the last 20 or 25 guys, that's a big step. If I can show that I'm capable of doing that a few times this year, that's already not bad. That's the most important thing for now: being there in the final and looking at what the others are doing, how quickly they're going on the final climbs. And then maybe next year I can already be better."
Riders for the cobbled Classics tend to fall into two distinct groups, those who live for the Tour of Flanders and those who covet Paris-Roubaix. Although Teunissen was a solid performer in the Ronde van Vlaanderen Beloften as an amateur, the pavé of the Nord seem better-suited to his characteristics.
"In under-23 I went quite well there and also last year I felt quite good on it," Teunissen said. "I'm relatively heavy for the hills so I favour the flatter Roubaix a bit. If I had to choose, it would be Roubaix."
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