After eight years with Quick-Step, the Dutchman is now sole leader for the French team's cobbled hopes
This weekend heralds what for some is the most exciting period of the road season. On Saturday the majority of the best Classics riders will line up for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, while on Sunday many of us will spend a second day glued to the TV for Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
And it’s not just the fans who love these gnarly races which traverse the cobbles and bergs of Belgium, plenty of the pro peloton look forward to this period with nervous excitement too.
One of those is Niki Terpstra.
Though it could well be his focus, the Dutchman can come sometimes across as distant, even surly, but ask him about the spring Classics and his eyes light up. This is his time of year. A time when he has achieved his greatest successes.
Though he invariably manages to win at least one of these early season races each year, 2018 was a standout for the 34-year-old. Much like this year he began quietly at Valenciana and Oman, before bagging his first win at Le Samyn.
The ensuing weeks brought him victory at E3 Harelbeke, before he became the first Dutchman to win the Tour of Flanders for 32 years.
Those successes and so many others have come as a member of the all-conquering Quick-Step team which he joined in 2011, but before they could sign Deceuninck as title sponsor for 2019, Terpstra was poached by French outfit Direct Energie.
“Everybody was surprised by my decision when I announced it, it came out of the blue. But they showed a real interest in me,” he explained to a group of journalists in Oman last week, stressing that he remained happy at the Belgian team.
“At that moment Quick-Step couldn’t make me an offer because they didn’t have the sponsorship, so it was pretty simple. Things got late in the season, but we always had full contact through the season.”
Terpstra’s trademark is the long distance attack, where he uses his huge engine to win solo, and such successes have often been possible because of the overwhelming strength of that Quick-Step squad.
Think his first Monument at the 2014 Paris-Roubaix when all eyes were on team-mate Tom Boonen until he launched his 14km solo effort.
Or last year’s Le Samyn where he and Philippe Gilbert’s repeated attacks left Damien Gaudin helpless, flailing in their wake.
Ironically Gaudin will be riding with Terpstra at Direct Energie this year, and he believes they can achieve success.
“The level is not as high as at Quick-Step of course, you can feel it at training camp, but I knew that and that is part of the adventure and why I wanted to go to this team.
“They want to use my experience to improve the team, they want to make the step up. There is quality, some really strong guys, but they didn’t have the right focus in the Classics, now they say to me they are motivated because they have the goal to support me. It’s good to feel that support.
“I hope they will come pretty far into the final, but the most important thing is they get me in front in the important sections, but I think somebody [a team-mate] will be in the final. I think some guys can surprise.”
After so many years at one of the sport’s strongest teams, where he was one of many who could win, this year Terpstra will lead Direct Energie’s campaign, though he says that scrutiny has neither increased or reduced pressure.
“There is always pressure to perform, that was in Quick-Step and that is now. The difference is now I am the main focus of the team in my races, with Quick-Step there were also a few other riders,” he says, before playing down expectations for the upcoming races.
“I like to win but for sure, I want to be there and race for the results, and if I make the final and I can do something in the race for the final then I will be kind of satisfied.
“But of course I like to score, I win some big races but I don’t win a lot because I am not that explosive, so if I win everything has to be perfect.”