Tiesj Benoot is one of cycling’s hottest prospects. He was fifth in the 2015 Tour of Flanders, aged 21, and combines his cycling career with a degree in economics at Gent University. How far can the Lotto-soudal rider go?
Were you surprised by your results last year? Yeah, for sure: I surprised myself, I surprised everyone. My goal was to have those results at a lower level, in 1.1 races, but I could immediately get results in the Worldtour, the highest level in cycling. It was a big surprise.
How did it feel to be in contention for the win in your first Tour of Flanders? When I came over the Kwaremont and Paterberg and looked around, I was with the biggest names in Classics cycling: guys I was watching the year before on television. Feeling that I could follow them and play a role was really special.
Given how passionate Flandrians are about cycling, did that result change your life? I come from a small village near Gent, I still live with my parents – I live an easy life actually. Not a lot changed in my life. I got more press attention and some people recognise me but not a lot has changed. From time to time I get recognised in Gent, and some come up to you, but a lot don’t. I can still go and drink a beer and relax.
You are balancing your studies with a professional career, which is very unusual – did you go to university because you were worried you wouldn’t make it as a pro cyclist? Yes, two years ago, when I was 18, I had to choose what I wanted to study. I didn’t know if I would turn professional so it was normal to go to university. I’m still happy to do it; I’ve put a lot of effort into it so it would be silly to stop. But cycling comes first for me now. How do you sit exams and when do you study – do you have your books with you at races and training camps? I did one exam at the end of November then one at the beginning of January, so the first training camp with the team I took my books, and I did a training camp on my own and took my books. Actually, I only study on training camps. But now I’m more focused on the training and racing so I’ve stopped studying. After the Classics I’ll start again. It’ll be four years before I graduate, I think.
Do you have a lot of friends at university who help you with the coursework? I have and I need them because I don’t have time for the classes. For the last year and a half I haven’t seen the inside of a lecture theatre. Without them it wouldn’t be possible to continue studying.
As well as the Classics you can ride stage races, you can climb, so do you have any idea what kind of rider you will become? The Classics are my first goal but later [in my career] I will try to make the transition to becoming a lighter rider for the harder races: the [Clásica] San Sebastián and the smaller stage races. It would be silly to do that now, because the Classics are where my heart lies. But I will try to do Amstel Gold this year – a first step to some harder races.
How did you start cycling? Do you come from a cycling family? I wanted to start very early, when I was five, but it was not possible. So I played soccer for six years, then I did the two sports for a year, then cycling only from when I was 11. My grandfather and father were cycling lovers but there are no cyclists in the family. My grandfather was a runner – a steeplechaser. He was second in the Belgian National Championships one year.
Had you raced over such a long distance before the Tour of Flanders last year? No but I felt the week before, at [E3] Harelbeke, that after 200km I was still feeling fresh. I think the harder it is the better I am. The Tour of Flanders is also over my training roads – that was a big advantage, to know the parcours. I know every road – every stone, I would say.
You’re very versatile: good in the Classics but also able to climb and with ambitions to do well in Grand Tours. Are there any current riders you would like to emulate? Geraint Thomas is someone I really look up to, he rides well in every race from the beginning to the end of the season.