Having spent a number of seasons in the services of Bradley Wiggins and his stage racing needs, Geraint Thomas will see those roles reversed on Sunday as the former Tour de France winner lines up as part of the Welshman’s support crew at the Tour of Flanders.
Wiggins, who is riding his final Classics campaign before leaving Team Sky at the conclusion of Paris Roubaix to focus on the track, is approaching the end of this particular road in his career just at Thomas is settling in as Team Sky’s most accomplished leader for the Classics. Wiggins believes that Thomas, after winning the E3 Harelbeke, could be on the cusp of winning the team’s first Monument.
"We've probably got the race favourite in Geraint, so it's pretty clear-cut what we have to do. Sky is pretty good at that in terms of getting their leader where he needs to be and in Geraint we've got someone who can potentially win the race," Wiggins told Cyclingnews and one other journalist at the Three Days of De Panne.
Wiggins, of course, knows Thomas better than most. The pair were track teammates at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and formed part of Team Sky's first roster two years later. The Welshman, who is enjoying his best season since turning professional skipped Wiggins' Tour de France ride in 2012 in order to concentrate on the track but at the recent Paris-Nice, Wiggins picked up on Thomas's new-found diligence and attention to detail – a trait he himself harboured during his own stage racing purple patch.
"I said to him at Paris-Nice, I've never seen him like that before. He's normally a bit away with the fairies but he was paying attention to his food and his mindset. He's spent quite a few years racing for other people, being the strongman and being praised as the super domestique but now he's getting the opportunity and position where he has the confidence to ride at the front."
Speaking to Thomas over the last few weeks it is abundantly clear the man himself has harnessed a confidence that was at times missing in the past. He has dropped weight over the winter but the way he clinically disposed of the opposition in E3 Harelbeke two weeks ago displayed a new side to his game. He is not the outright favourite for Flanders but he is certain among the leading contenders.
"I think he's up there with guys like Cancellara now. He's nearly 30 and he's realised that these are the years to win one of these things," adds Wiggins, a rider who progressed massively when he turned his attention to stage racing in 2009.
"In some ways, I don't know with these races, but clearly in Gent-Wevelgem he was the strongest rider in the finale and same with E3. The peloton know how strong he is and I would say that would go against him but if he goes like he did with Sep Vanmarcke and dropped him, there's not a lot they can do. Once he goes in the final on the Kwaremont or Paterberg it's about having the legs and whoever can follow him."
Two riders who will not be anywhere near Thomas' rear wheel on Sunday are Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, with the two Classics icons of the last decade at home nursing recently sustained injuries. Their absence not only opens the door for Thomas and his teammates but a raft of new suitors to the Classics crown.
"These guys, think about the next five years, as the likes of Tom and Fabian drift away, they're a year older and Geraint is one of the next to step up for the Classics. Stybar is another who has shown he can as well but so too is Ian Stannard," Wiggins added, pointing to another rider who has not quite been at his best in recent outings.
For now, however, Thomas is the centre of Team Sky's and even Wiggins' attention. Since signing for Team Sky, Thomas has been a jack of all trades rider. That's partially down to his previous track commitments but also his ability to climb, time trial and cobble to relative degree of success. His lack of a true sprint also lends itself to the characteristics of a rider who can do a lot of things well. For Wiggins the pigeon-holing of Thomas' career is a measure of the man's array of talents but also something that has at times held him back to.
"That's the thing with Geraint. In some ways he can do anything. That's probably his biggest downfall in the last few years in that he gets used for everything, whether it’s in the mountains for people, second in a hilltop finish in Paris-Nice or winning one of these races, at some point you’ve got to specialize. He's doing that at these races but then his attention turns to altitude camps, the Dauphine and the Tour de France and hopefully having his own chance in the first week before he turns his attention to working for Froome. He's a victim of his own success and his own talent, in many ways."
The final countdown
Wiggins' success within the sport has already been cemented with multiple world titles on the track - and one on the road in the time trial – as well as his 2012 Tour de France yellow jersey and OLympic time trial gold medal. This spring, and with Paris-Roubaix marked as the final flourish, Wiggins has the chance of extending his already eclectic palmares with the addition of a spring Monument.
However his form in recent weeks has been hard to determine. After failing to start E3 and then abandoning Gent-Wevelgem he has pushed through the first two days at De Panne with seeming ease, often near the front when it matters with a dedicated Bernhard Eisel often at his wing.
At Flanders he will ride in Thomas's aid and Scheldeprijs is next on the agenda. Then it's Paris-Roubaix, a lottery of a race if ever there was one but a fine way to bow out with a game plan and a gamble. It all means that Wiggins has just days, hours even, left in Team Sky kit.
"You automatically start to countdown. You try not to but of course everyone reminds you constantly," he says.
"Just ten more days and all that but it's inevitable really, even if you try and put it all to the back of your mind. There's still an element of you counting it down. In some ways it's nice that it's not just stopping and that there are other things to go back to like the hour record and the track."
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