Slotting neatly into the midweek spot once occupied by Gent-Wevelgem, Scheldeprijs seems to mark the threshold between stewing over the whys and wherefores of the Tour of Flanders just past and considering afresh the possibilities offered by Paris-Roubaix at the weekend.
Team Sky, certainly, are among the outfits glad to put the Ronde behind them. The men in black arrived in Bruges on a high following Geraint Thomas’ triumph at E3 Harelbeke, but despite spending the bulk of the afternoon controlling affairs on the front of the race, they came away from the finish in Oudenaarde empty-handed.
“There was a bit of a sad feeling that G [Thomas] didn’t get up there and we’d put in all of that hard work to help him but I think as a team we rode really well and really took on the race,” Ian Stannard told Cyclingnews in Antwerp on Wednesday morning ahead of Scheldeprijs. “Everything was perfect apart from the end and I think G was pretty much marked out of the race.”
Sky’s Classics unit was often subject to robust criticism over the first five years of the team’s existence, but the early weeks of this season suggested that they had found a way to transfer their philosophy to the rough and tumble of the pavé. Stannard set the ball rolling by seeing off no fewer than three Etixx-QuickStep riders to win a dramatic Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, before Thomas dispatched of Peter Sagan and Zdenek Stybar to win in Harelbeke, but there was familiar reproach for their tactics after the Tour of Flanders setback.
“At the end of the day we were at the front on every small road, on every climb. We were always in the right position,” Stannard said. “You can’t go into those roads in 30th or 40th position because you’re expending a lot more energy. I think we rode it pretty well, and people can say what they want to be honest. They’re not the ones on a bike doing it. It’s easy when you’re sat on a couch in front of a TV.”
Wiggins to lead at Paris-Roubaix
Stannard and Sky carried out their pre-Paris-Roubaix reconnaissance earlier than most, on Tuesday morning, as if to illustrate their desire to cast their eyes forwards rather than backwards. The lie of the land will be rather different at the Hell of the North, however. In his final race in the colours of Sky, Bradley Wiggins is pencilled in for the role of outright leader, with Thomas and Stannard as his foils.
“Brad’s made it quite clear that he wants to be the leader and win that race so it’s quite geared towards him,” Stannard said. “G [Thomas] is going well and he’s got the potential to go well there, and there’s Luke [Rowe] and myself as well, so we’ll all look to be up there through Arenberg Forest and then see what the situation is. If Brad’s feeling great, then it’s all for him. Or if G’s feeling great, it’s for him. You can’t have one guy beforehand, but when you get to the finale you do have to ride for one guy.”
Stannard’s forceful display at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February suggested that he might well be the man best equipped to lead Sky on the cobbles this spring, but the Essex native’s preparations were upset by a crash at Milan-San Remo. Although he lined up at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem the following week, he was still short of his best come the Tour of Flanders.
“I did Harelbeke and got through it but it all came to a head a bit at Gent-Wevelgem, the weather wasn’t great there and I didn’t really feel it,” He said. “I rode Flanders for G and I felt good up to about 230km and then I lost it really, so there we are.”
Even so, come the final 100 kilometres on Sunday, after the maelstrom of the Arenberg Forest, Stannard could yet find himself thrust into a position of responsibility. Paris-Roubaix has a habit of unexpectedly restacking the deck.
“You’ve got to take little steps, get through Arenberg. That will be the first meeting point really,” he said. “We’ll get together and see how things are going and go from there – reassess a little bit and change the plans on the road.”
Rivals need to take responsibility in Roubaix
While Paris-Roubaix often takes on a logic of its own, divorced from any prior planning, within a few sectors of pavé, Stannard does not envisage Sky being quite as generous as they were last weekend in their attempts to control the race.
“I think we haven’t got an outright favourite for the race. Giant haven’t done one tap on the front yet, so they’ve got a bit of responsibility to take on and Katusha as well – they haven’t done much [work] but they’re performed really well. With Kristoff there, they’ve got to take some responsibility as well,” Thomas said. “We went into Flanders with G as the clear favourite and the clear leader but I think Roubaix is a little bit different for us.”
Indeed, in the absence of Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, this Paris-Roubaix – for the first time in a decade, perhaps – feels devoid of an outright favourite. Impressive though he was in winning the Tour of Flanders, Kristoff insists that the flat pavé of Paris-Roubaix is not specifically to his liking.
“You’d expect him to be up there but he is more of punchy rider so maybe Flanders does suit him better because you have to be able to accelerate into those climbs whereas at Roubaix the pace is on all day,” he said. “It’s more tiring in a way, but there’s less acceleration and that makes easier for less punchy riders to be there.”