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Fast-rising Benoot already a classics contender

WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — Tiesj Benoot may only be 22, but he has already found success in the longest and hardest races of the spring classics. After last year’s fifth place in the country’s biggest race – the Ronde van Vlaanderen – Belgians are watching him closely.

Benoot rode away from the red Lotto-Soudal bus Sunday morning in Deinze just before Gent-Wevelgem got underway crowded by fans. He is from nearby Ghent and many people at the start knew his name. They cheered “Tiesj,” or what sounds like “tease.” They are expecting much from him after last year when, then just 21, he placed fifth behind winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) in the Tour of Flanders.

Lotto signed him for its professional WorldTour team in 2015 after it supported him in its feeder team. This year — after a stunning 2015 that also included fourth in Paris-Tours and three top tens in the Critérium du Dauphiné — he is looking to make another step ahead.

“I have more expectations, but I’m more self-confident compared to last year,” Benoot told VeloNews. “I know what my abilities are. This is the biggest change for me. There’s a bit more pressure, sure, but until now, it’s going good. I don’t think too much about it.”

Benoot is one of a small handful of classics aces coming through the ranks. His biggest goal in 2016 is to ride well in the cobbled classics, from Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem through Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. He already placed third in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last month and seventh in E3 Harelbeke on Friday.

“We are not putting pressure on him,” said team manager Marc Sergeant sitting in Lotto’s team car in a cloudy and windy Deinze.

“The public? He’s not stressed out by it. He wants to race and do well. Today’s Gent-Wevelgem wasn’t normally on his schedule, but he saw that the weather was forecasted to be bad and said, ‘I have to do it.’ He’s good in these conditions, when it’s long and hard.

“For example, Harelbeke’s bold. It has everything in it at once and then a stretch to the finish, but he likes it stretched out, longer classics, and harder at the end. That’s why he loves more the races with 260 to 270 kilometers.”

“How is it possible? I put in many hours in on my bike, it’s the same for a 22-year-old as it is for a 30-year-old,” Benoot added. “I have to put in a lot of long, slow hours, that works for me and helps me to be better in the longer races. I train my engine. When I am older, I’ll work more on intensity.”

Benoot may become another classic god in Belgium, but he will do so with an economics degree. He has one more year left in his studies at Ghent University. He takes classes between the big racing periods. After the Amstel Gold Race on April 17, he will back off and spend more time with his schoolbooks.

“I’ve already put a lot of effort into it, I don’t want to stop now,” Benoot said. “Cycling comes first, but I’m slowly completing my degree.”

“The classics are his future and for sure he is able to do it,” continued Sergeant. “The most difficult part will be to win. Once he wins one big race, one of the ones at a level right below a big monument, then he will get started. His attention has been on his studies, so he still has a big margin to improve. But if you can do it when you are already 21 like last year in Flanders, for sure you can progress.”