GENT, Belgium (VN) – When Team Sky installed one-time Paris-Roubaix winner Servais Knaven as sport director in 2011 the message was clear. Sky, a squad known best for its precision management in long stage races, was looking to grow into the kind of mature team also capable of winning in the chaos of the cobbled classics.
But by 2013, with Sky having failed to produce a single classics result of note, questions had begun to grow about the team’s one-day racing aspirations. Could its meticulous, control-all-variables approach really co-exist with the kind of improvisational, aggressive racing required to win on the unpredictable roads of Belgium, northern France, and the Netherlands?
On Saturday, in the first cobbled test of this 2014 season, Sky put many of those questions definitively to rest. Not only did the team’s Ian Stannard win a chilly, sodden Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with a well-timed sprint from behind BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, but teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen followed up, closing out the podium ahead of Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke and Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Niki Terpstra, last year’s Paris-Roubaix second- and third-place finishers.
Sky also showed off some clever, well-coordinated teamwork, something that its rivals for classics success at the end of this month surely noted. Knaven said he saw it as a sign that the team’s deliberative approach, the long process of developing riders and chemistry, was working.
“Now we have really a group where everybody is one year older,” Knaven told VeloNews. “Luke Rowe, you saw the role he played for us today. Edvald, he has more experience, and Ian as well. So now they are there, together.
“It takes time. It’s not only being strong, it’s also having knowledge of the course and studying it with videos and all that has to go together. Riders from Belgium race here from age 16, but riders from other countries need more time, and you could see that today.”
Knaven pointed out that not only did Sky execute to perfection, the team did so without the lines of communication that will be available in the WorldTour races that begin at the end of this month. Other teams’ failures to communicate were costly, he argued, citing confusion in the Omega Pharma squad when what had looked like the day’s definitive breakaway faltered as one of its instigators, Belkin’s Lars Boom, punctured with just over 20km to go.
“This was perfect, perfect teamwork,” he said. “This was the best I’ve seen in a long time in these races from us. Always when there was a counter-attack we had someone there.”
Race winner Stannard echoed his director, crediting his teammates with both support and smart racing.
“The guys really helped me out,” said Stannard. “Christian Knees looked after me early on and Bernie and Luke did a great job before the climbs. Obviously it’s always important to be on the cobbled climbs at the front. And today, especially so, with it being wet and just not great weather.”
It was the kind of racing, he said, that took time to learn. Both Stannard and Knaven said the team had studied the mistakes of seasons past and adapted.
“You have to learn these races,” said Stannard. “And we’ve got a young team as well, so I think it’s all slowly coming into place. Hopefully in the next races we show that as well, and not just a one-off today. I came here today as the leader for the team, and they put some faith in me, and hopefully I’ve shown I can perform with that faith.”
But if Sky’s good fortune came as the result of coordinated effort and smart racing, the team also benefited from the conspicuous underperformance of a top rival — and some plain good luck.
Omega Pharma’s Tom Boonen, the clear prerace favorite, appeared unable to adapt to the cold, wet conditions in Belgium after success in summery Qatar and Oman. And Sky’s key players more than once avoided the untimely mechanicals that derailed contenders like Boom and the crashes that knocked out Thor Hushovd (BMC) and defending champion Luca Paolini (Katusha).
Stannard also acknowledged that when Sky returns to these roads at the end of March, they will face a much more imposing field. Absent on Saturday were perhaps the classics’ two most dangerous men: Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan.
But Stannard told reporters that he felt racing Omloop would give him an edge later.
“They’re obviously not here, they’re training or whatever, everybody does different stuff,” he said. “But it’s nice to be here racing and learning the roads more for the bigger races coming up. It’s another race in the legs and getting to know the roads as well, you know they change every year slightly. It’s all about learning, and for me it’s the best option to be here racing.”
Knaven, for his part, said it wouldn’t matter. Savvy racing, teamwork, and experience will be the keys to Sky’s success this year. With several young, capable riders but no standout classics star, he is likely right.
“This is how we can win bike races,” he said. “We don’t have Tom Boonen or Sagan or Cancellara. But we have really strong riders, and together, as you saw today, they are as strong or stronger than any single rider.”
For now, however, the team seemed less worried about its future rivals than its present successes, content to revel in the first glimmers that a years-long process is finally paying off.
“Last year we said this is a start, and this year we changed some things,” said Knaven. “At the end it’s tactics and experience that are really important. Today we are really happy.”