Tom Dumoulin said he is in worse form than the previous two years as he looks to the Giro d’Italia.
The Dutchman returned from altitude training to race in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he finished an underwhelming 50th place.
Dumoulin, winner of the 2017 Giro, returns to the Italian Grand Tour next month as he looks to follow up on his strong 2018 season.
Speaking after Liège, Dumoulin told Dutch broadcaster NOS: “I worked very hard and achieved nothing. It’s a pity.
“I felt blocked all day.”
Reflecting on his form so far, he added: “It was not so bad in the last two years, but I am worse than in the last two years.”
Sunweb rider Dumoulin has ridden a similar programme to previous seasons, opening in the Middle East at the UAE Tour before heading to Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo and then Liège.
His next race will be the Giro on May 11.
The 28-year-old rode a consistent 2018 season, finishing second in both the Giro and the Tour de France behind Team Sky’s Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas respectively.
Dumoulin faces tough competition in the Giro, as Colombian star Egan Bernal will lead Team Sky in Italy and looks to be in good form after he won Paris-Nice in March.
Jumbo-Visma’s Primož Roglič is another strong Giro contender, having won the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico overall, with multiple Grand Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) also a threat.
Britain’s Simon Yates will also return to Italy this year after a bittersweet ride in last year.
The Mitchelton-Scott rider won three stages of the Giro and looked set to take home the maglia rosa, but dramatically fell out of contention on the penultimate mountain stage.
Yates’ team-mate Esteban Chaves will also return in a support role after a long recovery from illness.