MILAN (VN) — Geraint Thomas slipped away into a promising move in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and finished fourth today in Ghent, Belgium. More importantly, his Sky team played its hand and proved on track for the classics season.
“The thing with Flanders [Ronde van Vlaanderen] and these sort of races is you can have one leader, but at the end of a day, a lot can happen. Having a strong team works in everyone’s favor,” Thomas said. “We’re in a good position to try and get on that podium.”
The 26-year-old Welshman known simply as “G” made the 10-man move with eventual winner Luca Paolini (Katusha). Paolini, however, gave the group the slip with Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 25 kilometers from the line.
Thomas tried to escape the chase group inside the final 2 kilometers, but saw Sven Vandousselaere (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) edge him in the sprint in Ghent’s university center.
“I was slightly disappointed with the sprint,” Thomas said. “The Topsport guy went quite early, I stopped for a rev to give him a bit of a gap, to run at him. I should’ve kept going and it ended up right on the line.”
Thomas’ ride came after he crashed with 70 kilometers to race. Power gels cushioned his fall, he said, but he still banged his back and head.
“I was pretty banged up after that,” Thomas said, “but I’ve had worse.”
A family affair
Thomas handled himself well over the eight cobble sectors and 12 hellingen (climbs) on Saturday. Many of those brutal bergs will feature in E3 Harelbeke and De Ronde in the coming month.
Thomas’ Sky teammates — including Ian Stannard, Bernhard Eisel, and Edvald Boasson Hagen — finished in the peloton behind, where they were able to assess classics rivals Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma) and Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco).
The efforts today will pay dividends down the road.
Sky won the Tour de France and dominated many of the other stage races with Bradley Wiggins last year. Chris Froome placed second in the Tour and last week, won the Tour of Oman.
The Brit super squad has mastered GC racing, but needs to improve over its first three seasons to build a classics reputation.
“The experience you get year by year is important,” team sports director Servais Knaven told VeloNews earlier this month.
Juan Antonio Flecha led the team over the cobbled roads in the last three years and was the team’s biggest scorer, including a win in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the team’s debut year, 2010, and a podium place at Paris-Roubaix.
Flecha transferred to Vacansoleil-DCM this season, however, and opened the door for Thomas and Sky’s improving cobble crunchers.
“It’s still open who will be the leader; at the moment it’s not decided. ‘G’ is really up for the classics. Edvald, too. But one of the best things for us is that we have five or six riders who could be there in the final,” said Knaven, a Paris-Roubaix winner himself. “Matt Hayman was top 10 in Roubaix the last two years and Stannard has the potential to win Roubaix, as well.”
While the team has five or six riders who can contend, it does not feature a classics star in the build of Boonen or Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard). But Knaven was not that rider either when he won the “Queen of the Classics.”
“I told them that when I won Roubaix [in 2001] I was not the best rider that day, by far,” he said. “There were maybe four or five riders who were stronger than I was, but I had a strong team around me, with a strong leader who was happy for me to win. That’s also important and that’s what we try to create, a solid group who are happy for their teammates to win.”
The strong support is important if Sky wants to win a monument like De Ronde or Paris-Roubaix.
Living on Tenerife time
With some variations from today, Sky’s classics team heads down the road to race Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday and Le Gran Prix Samyn Wednesday. After that, its riders are off to the Spanish island of Tenerife to use the same high-altitude roads that worked so well for Wiggins and Froome in 2012.
In a unique twist, the classics team will skip the Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico stage races to train specifically on Spain’s remote island ahead of the three-week period that opens with Milano-Sanremo on March 17 and closes in Roubaix on April 7.
“I think it’s just worth committing to the program,” Thomas told VeloNews. “The training and being really specific. Tim Kerrison [team trainer] is obviously a cleaver guy and looked at what Brad needed for the Tour. The classics are totally different, you obviously got to be strong and physically fit, but there’s a lot more that comes into play, controlling those things you can because in some races you don’t get what you really need.”
The squad parachutes in for Sanremo on March 17 and heads north for the remainder of its classics run. Thomas and his team hope today’s experience and the Tenerife training will produce a monument win, one that would sit nicely besides Wiggins’ Tour triumph.