Tiesj Benoot turned out to be ahead of the curve. When he turned professional in 2015, specialisation was en vogue. After the Belgian followed 5th place at his debut Tour of Flanders with a series of assured Alpine displays at the Critérium du Dauphiné, received wisdom said that he would soon have to make a decision between cobbles and climbing.
Instead, Benoot continued to mix and match his objectives over the remainder of his tenure at Lotto Soudal and in his first season at Sunweb (now Team DSM). The Ronde was a perennial target, but in time, the Ardennes Classics were added to his programme and he also placed 20th overall at his debut Tour de France in 2017.
Five years on, such versatility is suddenly back in fashion, with Grand Tour riders winning Classics, Monuments men climbing mountains, and some of the sport’s biggest stars toggling between disciplines throughout the year.
“It’s a nice trend, it’s true, but it’s actually something I’ve always done,” Benoot told Cyclingnews.
“For me, it’s nice to be able to race the biggest races of the calendar all year round and to be in the final fighting for the win. I think if you have the capabilities, like a lot of young riders are showing now, then it’s possible to race a wide range of different races.
“I think the only thing where you have to sacrifice a lot is if you’re going for GC in a Grand Tour, then you have to build your whole season around it.”
It was with Benoot’s Grand Tour ambitions in mind that Belgian newspaper Le Soir recently ran a profile that described the 26-year-old as “eternally indecisive”, noting that “the time has come for certain choices”.
Benoot doesn’t necessarily disagree, but he has stressed that he is not rushing to test himself over three weeks. For 2021, at least, his stage racing ambitions will be limited to improving on recent encouraging displays in shorter events, like his second place at Paris-Nice last March.
“This season, we will not go for GC in a Grand Tour but in shorter stage races instead, to try to make a next step there,” Benoot said. “Then it’s possible that for next year , it will be in the plan to go for a Grand Tour or to be part of a co-leadership in a Grand Tour. It’s something we will evaluate by the end of 2021 and then decide what next year brings.”
‘At Sunweb it isn’t as controlled as everybody thinks’
When Benoot delayed the start of his debut campaign at Sunweb until Opening Weekend, he wasn’t to know that the season would be interrupted by the pandemic just two weeks later, but he at least had the consolation of making the most of that fortnight of racing.
As the shutters were coming down across Europe, Benoot claimed only the third victory of his career on the penultimate stage of Paris-Nice and he then placed second behind Nairo Quintana on the summit finish at La Colmiane the following day.
“At Paris-Nice I had one of the highest levels I ever had in my life,” said Benoot, who carried a back injury into the Tour but contributed to Sunweb’s aggressive – and successful – showing in France before ending his campaign with solid outings at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Flanders.
“I didn’t have my best legs there, but two top 10s in Monuments isn’t bad, and it was really nice to be part of a Tour team that performed so well even though my own feeling was not that good.”
Sunweb had raised eyebrows by leaving men like Michael Matthews and Wilco Kelderman out of the Tour line-up and fielding a youthful squad with no fixed leaders and a commitment to attacking, but the choice yielded three stage wins through Marc Hirschi and Søren Kragh Andersen. Both men will figure alongside Benoot in the Classics next spring, where they will hope to replicate a similar, collective approach.
“It’s a goal to do it again this way, it’s also what we had discussed last winter,” Benoot said. “We wanted to race aggressively in the Classics as a block and not with a lone leader.
“It’s also something I was looking for, because to win the biggest races on the calendar, I need some other guys, some teammates, around me so we can play the team game. We will see if it’s possible to do it but at least it’s the goal to do it.”
As well as an emphasis on the collective, Sunweb have garnered a reputation for imposing a level of structure on their riders that some have found overbearing – as suggested, perhaps, by the succession of lofty names who have left the team before the expiration of their contracts.
After 12 months at the team, however, Benoot believes the charge of micro-management has been exaggerated. On the day of his stage win at Paris-Nice, for instance, he had the freedom to overrule an order from the team car for Sunweb’s men in the front group to collaborate with overall leader Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe).
“In the end, I think it’s not as controlled as everybody thinks or like it’s said to be in the press. But I also knew about it, and it was something I chose,” Benoot said.
“I think it’s a team where you have to be really open to what they say to you, but they are also open to discussion, so you can have your own ideas. Once you’re open, you can really build something nice together, because they have all the knowledge in the team to help you in whatever domain. For me, it’s worked well, it was fully what I expected it to be.”
Benoot’s race programme for 2021 has yet to be finalised, though it seems likely to feature the usual eclectic mix of terrain. One novelty could be a Giro d’Italia debut in lieu of the habitual Tour appearance, though much depends on the route of the corsa rosa, which will be unveiled in early January.
The 26-year-old’s schedule off the bike is no less taxing, as he continues to study towards a masters in marketing at the University of Ghent.
“I’m writing my thesis right now and then I have three small course left after that,” Benoot said, and joked: “Then I can finally go working.”