Heading into their sixth Classics campaign, Team Sky are still in search of the holy grail that is winning one of cycling’s most coveted Monuments.
The team have had a difficult relationship with the Classics, flirting with success on occasion but never securing one of the biggest prizes. Unable to replicate their skillset in Grand Tours, where metronomic suffocation and clinical execution have seen them win two Tours de France, they have struggled to match the tempo and authority of other squads such as QuickStep and Trek in the one-day format.
And nor have they devised the kind of winning strategy that has seen others – Johan Vansummeren (Garmin), Alexander Kristoff, (Katusha) Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank) – carry away success. After five years on the racing circuit, plenty of success and just as many plaudits, the Classics remain an itch that Sky have yet to scratch.
Rod Ellingworth, the team’s head of performance operations, who has been credited with Great Britain’s successful ‘Project Rainbow’ at the 2011 Worlds, has seen Team Sky make marginal improvements in recent times in the Classics, and understandably has faith in the core of the team that will take centre stage, starting with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this weekend.
“The preparation has gone well. Last year we had a lot of sickness and illness in the build-up but this time around we’ve had a strong winter. We’ve not really changed that much in terms of preparation from last year but we’re confident with what works,” Ellingworth tells Cyclingnews.
Ellingworth has certainly seen the nucleus of Classics campaigners on the team change and adapt over the years. In the team’s debut of 2010 the squad was built around Juan Antonio Flecha, Gerrans, Matt Hayman and Edvald Boasson Hagen. All four have moved on – or, in Flecha’s case, retired – with the deputies from that time now assuming roles within the team of far more significance. For Ellingworth, though, it’s not just about experience or captaincy, but hunger and drive – something he sees in abundance when he looks through the team’s current crop of riders.
“If you look at Ian Stannard, he missed a lot of last year and he was super hungry to come back. Then we have Bradley [Wiggins], who believes that he can take Paris-Roubaix in a different way. Geraint [Thomas] missed out with a few falls last year and he wants to set the record straight so I think that we’ve got a lot of hungry bike riders. The riders are the ones driving the process and it’s down to their commitment. There are several ways you can make a journey but ultimately it’s down to how hungry the guys are and how willing they are to make a change.”
Yet changes in the Team Sky Classics roster have been minimal this year. It’s a contrast to the commitment seen with the Grand Tour rider recruitment, where the team signed two top ten finishers of three-week races in Leopold König and Nicolas Roche, and then added the climbing talents of Wout Poels for good measure. In the one-day arena the team have signed Elia Viviani and Andrew Fenn, the latter a rider of promise but who realistically couldn’t get a berth in the Monuments line-up in at QuickStep.
“We just believe in our guys and we’ve a group of lads who are motivated by the Classics,” says Ellingworth.
“I mean you’ve got your Boonens and Cancellaras who have dominated in recent years and bringing them to our team, that’s an easy fix, but the way we’ve committed to doing this is to get the riders who have the capabilities and then move them on. I find that exciting and they’re knocking on the door and it’s about taking that next step. I know we’ve not won of these Monuments but I don’t think that we’re a million miles off.”
“If you look at the rider development, for example, when we first started the young guys were there to support riders like Hayman and Flecha and they’ve moved on now and it’s guys like Stannard, who won Het Nieuwsblad last year, and that’s a classic example of how riders have come on with us.”
Had Stannard not crashed and broken his back in Gent-Wevelgem last year, it’s conceivable that he could have contested for the highest places in at least Paris-Roubaix. Instead, Thomas and Wiggins flew the flag with admirable top ten finishes, while Ben Swift’s third place in Milan-San Remo and Thomas’ eighth in Flanders collectively showed that the team were moving in the right direction after a lacklustre 2013 that saw them pick up one top-ten finish in the first three Monuments of the season.
Trial and error
Over the last five years it has been at times a case of trial and error, as the team search for a formula to catapult them to the top step of the podium. Altitude camps in place of Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico have been tried, tested and then discarded, riders who haven’t fulfilled their promise have been let go and racing strategies have been written and re-written – an aspect that was so sorely needed after an alarmingly naïve tactical showing at Paris-Roubaix in 2012.
“You make a mistake that quickly in one-day races and it’s hard to turn around,” Ellingworth says when discussing the team’s previous missteps.
“Your race can be over so quickly and we’ve had our fair amount of bad luck at times but if you compare that to stage racing, we’ve made mistakes there like every team but at stages races you can put those mistakes right.”
Ellingworth points to the recent Ruta del Sol as an example.
“Froome won that race, not on the day he attacked but the day before when he didn’t let his head drop after Contador attacked. Was that a tactical error not covering Contador? Maybe, but I don’t think so. But the next day we could put that right.
“We’ve learnt a lot as a team and when you think about sports directors a lot of our guys have come straight off the bike. They’re making developments as well.
“All of this, I think, is just the nature of the racing. In stage races you can put things right whereas in the one-day races the dynamic is so different. Also if you look at the Classics in the last few years they’re often won by the same people or their teams so there are a lot of teams missing out, not just us. If you take Quickstep, their absolute priority has been the Classics so their team is filled with those riders.”
On Saturday at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, all of the talking will be put to one side as Team Sky line up for the defence of their crown, with Ellingworth’s hungry pack hunting for success at the start of a six-week block of racing that could well set the tone for the team’s entire season. The fact that they appear to have evolved, learnt from any failings and kept belief in the core of their team could well prove the final piece in the jigsaw.
And while the team have strength in numbers, Ellingworth is rather guarded on the issue of team leadership. Sacrifices will have to be made at some point – and behind closed doors, perhaps they already have – but with Ellingworth, it’s about opportunities and they come thick and fast on the cobbles of Belgium.
“All the riders know that it’s about opportunities and I’m sure that Boonen and Terpstra have the same issues. Maybe it’s not the same for Cancellara but we can make it work in different ways. That group, with Geraint, Ian, Luke [Rowe], Brad, they all get on and they’re behind what the team is trying to do, but the bottom line is that we want to win a Classic.”
One suspects that any Classic under almost any circumstance will do. Whether it’s Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, the team will toast whoever lands the holy grail, but one possible fairy tale ending cannot be ignored.
In his final race for the squad, Bradley Wiggins is targeting Paris-Roubaix for the second year in succession. The team certainly would not be willing to risk everything on one day in hell but as far as legacy goes, it would be the perfect send-off.
The gravitational pull from Planet Wiggins might be seen as a distraction for some but Ellingworth has played down such notions, using it as a positive to inspire the Classics collective to seize their chances.
“No one has really talked about it much in the team. Everyone believes in Brad and we’re behind him and we’ll be sorry to see him go, but the other lads are just cracking on. Some of course will see the door opening and take the opportunity.
“Brad is a big star and everyone knows that and he deserves that attention but knowing Ian, Geraint and the others, that won’t put them off their game. They’re hard workers and their feet are firmly on the floor.”
On the floor they might be but if that Classics itch is to be scratched, Ellingworth will want his riders’ feet on the top step of the podium and nowhere else.