Belgium’s Benoot trades cobbles for climbs

Tiesj Benoot finds himself just outside of the top 20 on GC with a handful of stages left in the Tour de France.

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ROMANS-SUR-ISERE, France (VN)—Once labeled “the next Tom Boonen” for his early successes on the cobblestones, Belgian star Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) has used his Tour de France debut to showcase his skills on the climbs.

Benoot, 23, has attacked into breakaways during the Tour’s hilly stages and ridden confidently near the front in the high mountains. He has yet to score a splashy result, but has instead produced consistent finishes in the hills.

As a breakaway rider he finished 12th on the Tour’s punchy stage 9, which finished with the climb and descent of Mont du Chat. Four stages later Benoot finished in 17th place, alongside some of the peloton’s top climbers on the Pyrenean climb to Peyragudes. Benoot was again in the breakaway for Sunday’s stage 15 into Le Puy-en-Velay, and looked comfortable over the route’s two Category 1 climbs.

Throughout the race, Benoot has downplayed his recent success on the climbs — it’s a skill he’s always had, he says.

“For sure, I’ve improved my climbing skills but I’ve always been good at it,” Benoot said on stage 14. “I’ve been climbing on quite a high level — I’ve always gone good at [Liege-Bastogne-Liege].”

Benoot has succeeded on short punchy climbs, but his success in the high mountains is a new skill for 2017. After a dismal spring campaign that saw him skip Paris-Roubaix and drop his chain at Amstel Gold Race — the mechanical knocked him from the lead group — Benoot spent a month training in Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains to prepare for the back half of his season. He dropped 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) and pedaled for long days on the soaring Spanish climbs.

The training paid off in June. A leaner Benoot arrived at the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he rode more like a GC contender than a stage hunter. He finished alongside Chris Froome on stage 7, which concluded at l’Alpe d’Huez. The next day, when the race blew apart under pressure applied by Froome and Astana, Benoot rode consistently near the front, eventually finishing in 14th place. His efforts paid off — he placed 12th overall.

The success did not go unnoticed, and the Flemish press was quick to ask him whether he planned to target the GC at the Tour de France. Again, Benoot downplayed his success on the climbs and said he wanted to simply be a good teammate in July.

“In the Tour I want to assist André Greipel and take my chance in escapees,” Benoot told Het Nieuwsblad in June. “Hunting from a rank is not possible.”

It’s easy to understand why Benoot has kept coy about his climbing prowess. He is Flemish, and his national fans expect their top riders to perform in April, not July. Indeed, discussion of Benoot targeting climbing races elicited head shakes and eye rolling from Belgian journalists at the Tour. After all, Benoot is already a cobbled specialist within his country. In 2015, he was thrust into the Flemish spotlight with a fifth-place ride at the Tour of Flanders. Still a U23 rider, Benoot’s ride on the cobbles placed him into his country’s national spotlight as a potential heir to Boonen, who had entered the twilight of his career.

His results were splashed across the press, and his name was added to the list of contenders for the heavy cobbled races: Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, and Paris-Roubaix.

“When you are 21 years old and get fifth at Flanders, it is difficult because of the comparisons,” Benoot said. “I think at the moment I am now used to it.”

Whether his newfound success leads to a complete shift in focus has yet to be seen. Again, Benoot prefers to keep his cards close to the vest on his future. Sure, finishing near the front on the Tour’s climbing days has been a treat, yet it’s not necessarily a sign for the Flemish rider to abandon his home country’s biggest races. He said he will reassess his goals this winter to determine which races get his top attention in 2018.

“For people in Belgium, they also want to have a rider who can climb and goes for GC but I think it is not easy to simply go for this,” Benoot said. “Maybe next year I do the classics, maybe one day the [climbing] races are the races that suit me best.”

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