Tour of Flanders: Depleted Visma-Lease a Bike may capitalise on ‘underdog’ status

Matteo Jorgenson and Tiesj Benoot ready to race for themselves on Sunday, with the former's light shining bright after Dwars door Vlaanderen success

Clock11:01, Saturday 30th March 2024
Matteo Jorgenson and Tiesj Benoit spoke to the media on Friday afternoon

© Getty Images

Matteo Jorgenson and Tiesj Benoit spoke to the media on Friday afternoon

After suddenly losing their leader Wout van Aert to a crash on Wednesday, Visma-Lease a Bike are going into the Tour of Flanders with something of an underdog mentality, but they’re ready to race with two good backup options in the wings.

In Van Aert’s absence, Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Matteo Jorgenson and Belgian specialist Tiesj Benoot will lead the line on Sunday. It’s a possibility that’s been thrust upon the pair of them, with Van Aert set as the team’s undisputed leader several months ago, but the last-minute change hasn’t fazed the team too much, though their general status in the race may be different.

“I think for me personally it doesn’t change too much. I think I would also have my role deeper in the race and the final with or without Wout,” Benoot explained on the Friday before the race.

“We had a lot of mixed feelings on Wednesday evening, but I’m feeling from yesterday and certainly today when we did part of the parcours, we have also our minds set on Sunday and we are ready to make a new plan.”

There is, however, a wider issue of injury and illness within the team, and it’s not just Van Aert who is a missing link in the team that hoped to be dominant. Jan Tratnik has pulled out, Dylan van Baarle is only just returning from sickness, and Benoot himself is feeling the consequences of a crash last week.

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“I think in general it also means that we have to take less responsibility to control the race. We are now more underdogs. In a certain way, it also takes away some pressure from the team.”

With Van Aert out and Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek) carrying injuries, there’s now just one big favourite for Flanders: Van Aert’s perennial rival, Mathieu van der Poel. The two-time winner of De Ronde is clearly in form, and all eyes from within and outside the peloton will be on him and his Alpecin-Deceuninck team.

“I think there’s one clear favourite and that’s Mathieu van der Poel,” Jorgenson said. “I think I’m still in what I consider the best team in the world so you can never really count us out but I think as a rider Van der Poel is definitely a notch above just in theoretical terms. But it is a bike race and like we’ve seen in the past races, a lot of things can happen, so I think we still have a good chance and I have a lot of confidence.”

Up against a rider like Van der Poel with a team missing some of its key strength, it would be easy for some concern to arise in the Visma-Lease a Bike camp, but there was no sense of resignation to the imperious Dutchman.

“I wouldn’t say fear, it’s more a challenge to beat him,” Benoot said. “If you make plans for the Tour it’s about beating [Tadej] Pogačar, and now it’s about beating Mathieu.”

What their plans to beat Van der Poel are is not yet clear – and the team suggested that even the directors hadn’t finalised their strategy yet – but this is where Visma-Lease a Bike will hope their underdog status comes into play.

“If you saw the amount of man-hours that they put into making the original plan, I think you would understand that they still haven’t finished the new plan with the riders that we have now. So I still don't even know the final plan,” Jorgenson said.

“But I think we basically will have to play off of Alpecin, because I think they have full pressure on them to take the race into their hands and we’ll just have to look for our moment."

Read more: Mathieu van der Poel: ‘I prefer to race with all the top riders’ says Tour of Flanders favourite

Matteo Jorgenson elevated but realistic

Though Benoot is the more experienced rider and has always been talked about for Flanders after finishing fifth on debut in 2015, the team seem to be looking more towards Jorgenson as their possible trump card on Sunday. Not just because the American is the most recent winner in their number, but because the Paris-Nice champion is in sparkling form this season, and has also shown promise in Flanders before.

Suddenly, in his first year with the team, Jorgenson is heading into Sunday as a possible favourite, and for good reason. Between the team and the 24-year-old himself, there is hope and belief, but also realism.

“To be honest I think Flanders suits him even more than Dwars door Vlaanderen,” Benoot said of his teammate. “It's an even longer race, a harder one, and I think this is also a race for a better climber like Matteo, it makes it better for him. With the new parcours, riders like Pogačar or [Alejandro] Valverde, they came to Flanders and are immediately riding in the final and battling for victory.

“I think Sunday suits him better. Of course with Mathieu, our highest competitor is coming, so that’s for me the biggest difference from Wednesday, but in terms of the parcours it’s only better for him. The race is two hours longer and more climbing metres.”

Read more: 10 riders to watch at the Tour of Flanders

For Jorgenson, his expectations were more tempered, and he was hesitant to overstate his abilities.

“It means a lot [winning Dwars door Vlaanderen] but I think I have to remain realistic and I’ll have to do my best on Sunday,” he said. “I don’t think anything magical is going to happen but I think my legs this year are something completely new and I’m still finding my limits I think. Actually, I haven’t really found where I blow up yet so my feeling after Wednesday is a new level of confidence in these races."

Still, the fact is that Jorgenson came into this race as an outsider in 2023 and took ninth, and this year he’ll be part of one of the best teams on the start line, with the door open for leadership.

“A lot [has changed] for sure,” he said about the differences between 2023 and now. “I think already I wasn’t a bad rider and ninth at Flanders I’m also very proud of that result. But I’ve definitely come a long way in a lot of different regards since then. One of them being just my knowledge of the area around here and I really learned through the team here in November doing recons for Flanders and Roubaix. I’ve tried quite hard to learn all the names of the climbs despite that being a very complicated task but I feel like I know how to find my way around and how the races play out."

Read more: Our official preview for the men's Tour of Flanders

If his teammate Benoot is to be believed, that hard work has paid off, with the American easily able to follow along with the Belgian’s talk about the route when they’re out riding. Of course, winning Flanders is about a lot more than just knowledge, but that and flying form is a good start, and clearly a source of hope for the team that may have lost a lot of that earlier this week.

For the latest news, interviews and analysis from the world of professional cycling, be sure to check out the Racing tab on the GCN website and visit our essential guide to The Spring Classics to stay up to date with all of the action from cycling's most exciting season.

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