The Great Britain Cycling Team begin their UCI Under 23 Nations’ Cup campaign at the Ronde van Vlaanderen Beloften on Saturday 12 April.
A six-man team of Jon Dibben, Owain Doull, Chris Lawless, Scott Davies, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Alistair Slater will contest the race, with Lawless getting his first under-23 Nations' Cup outing after stepping up from the Olympic Development Programme at the end of 2013.
Germain Burton was included in the original line-up but was replaced with Hart just a day before the race. Hart, who rides for rides for Axel Merckx's Bissell Development Team sprung to prominence last year with a podium finish in the Paris-Roubaix Juniors race, which also takes place this weekend.
The race is the under-23 version of the elite Tour of Flanders spring classic which took place last weekend. Dating back to 1936, the Ronde van Vlaanderen Beloften was first included in the UCI Nations’ Cup in 2008, last won by Germany’s Rick Zabel.
The race is the first of three back-to-back one day events that form the spring segment of the Nations' Cup, with La Cote Picarde in France on 16 April and the ZLM Tour in the Netherlands on 19 April.
The series continues with the Pan-American Champs in Guatemala on 10 May, the Asian Championships in Kazakhstan on 31 May and the European Road Race Championships in Switzerland on 13 July, before culminating in the Tour de l’Avenir in France on 23-30 August.
Contested over a 165.7km course, the opening round features 14 trademark Flandrian climbs including ascents of the Eikenberg, Mollenberg and Taaienberg. Although not run over the same course as the pro race, the under-23 variant of ‘The Ronde’ is a big goal and a big challenge.
"Tour of Flanders is the Tour of Flanders,” said Great Britain under 23 road manager Keith Lambert. “It’s not the pro one but it's the one against all of their peers, under-23s. It's the one everybody wants to win.
"There are quite a lot of cobbles on that finishing circuit, other than the climbs, so it's a difficult race in its entirety."
The team’s initial aim is to score enough qualifying points in the opening three rounds to qualify for the Tour de l’Avenir later in the season. However, Lambert has longer term aims in mind.
"We want to try and win it. We nearly did last year,” said the coach.
“We got off to a good start last year; 13th in Flanders, third in Picarde and fourth in ZLM so that pushed us right up the table.
"If you're consistent, you get a good final result.
"But the main aim is to see some progress. It's not a winning business. It's learning how to win.”
The team has been contesting a number of early season kermesses and one-day races in Netherlands, Belgium and northern France, operating out of their base in Herselt, Belgium.
A podium finish for Chris Latham and Jon Dibben, who finished second and third respectively at the nearby Putte Kermesse on 29 March is an indication that the newly-formed squad is working well together.
The squad moved on to the three-day, four-stage Les Triptyque des Monts et Chateaux on 4 April where Owain Doull took the overall win and Jon Dibben victory in the time trial.
Doull was in the lead after the penultimate stage but had to win the final stage from a bunch sprint to secure overall victory. The result was marred by a crash and a broken collarbone for guest rider Dan McLay, ruling him out of selection for the opening three Nations’ Cup rounds.
However, Lambert’s early-season results bode well for the team’s chances in the coming week and also hint at the cohesion already present in his new look 2014 squad.
"It (Triptyque) was a massive team effort. There was only Owain left in the group at the end. They'd all spent themselves for the cause - getting him there.
“It's a big transition for them from junior ranks into senior and then to gel as a team as well, it's a big ask of them. But so far they're doing very well.”
Following the departure of Simon and Adam Yates to Orica GreenEdge at the end of 2013, Dibben and Doull are now the squad’s senior members and so far are backing this up with results.
“They step up and that's progression; that's what you expect in an academy,” said Lambert.
“It's a conveyor belt - they've (Yates brothers) have stepped off the top of it and someone has come and stepped on at the bottom of it and you just gradually move up, learning from the others in the process and hope it'll be a smooth transition."