While the winner soaks up the accolades on the podium in the centre of the track, the beaten men of Paris-Roubaix travel along a Via Dolorosa by the name of Avenue Alexandre Fleming, the side street that leads from the velodrome to the sanctuary of the team buses.
A downbeat Geraint Thomas wheels to a halt for a television crew and is immediately swarmed upon by a group of journalists eager to pick over the bones of Sky’s disappointing Classics campaign, while all around them, broken spirits pedalling broken bikes ghost by in ones and twos, their faces muddied and haunted.
Thomas had entered the race with hopes of a podium finish, but his challenge ended when he crashed on the cobbles at Tilloy with 73 kilometres still to race and he crossed the line some 14 minutes down in 79th.
“I was just too far back going into one of the sectors and there was a crash in front of me and that was it,” Thomas said. “There’s nowhere to go, especially on cobbles. You try to brake but it’s just not the same as on a normal road. It’s frustrating.”
Sky scarcely fared better as a unit. While Mathew Hayman played a prominent role in a mid-race break, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Ian Stannard were marked absent and only Bernhard Eisel (12th) was still involved when the decisive moves developed in the final hour.
“I don’t know what happened out in front or anything but it’s another frustrating day again, what can I say,” said Thomas, who was also a faller in the finale of the Tour of Flanders last weekend. “Obviously last week, there was nothing I could have done about it but today I should have been further forward. I learnt the hard way I guess. It’s just frustrating.”
The immediate aftermath of Paris-Roubaix is neither the time nor the place for a detailed post-mortem of the entire spring, but we live in an era of snap judgements and Thomas obliges as best he can in the circumstances.
Sky’s best result of an underwhelming cobbled Classics campaign is Hayman’s third place in Dwars Door Vlaanderen. It doesn’t measure up to the startlingly dominant performances Sky’s stage racing unit have delivered in the past two seasons.
“It just shows that it’s not just about being physically fit, there’s a lot more to it when it comes to the Classics,” Thomas says. “In the Tours you can have good threshold in the climbs and the time trials and you know you’re going to be there or thereabouts. Here, position, crashes and luck all come into play. We’ve been working for this since November and it’s just frustrating the way it’s happened.”
The million dollar question, of course, concerns Sky’s pre-Classics preparation. In the latest iteration of the marginal gains philosophy, Sky’s Classics squad eschewed Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico in favour of a training camp in the seclusion of Mount Teide.
Asked if that experiment will be repeated next year, Thomas feels that it was too early to say. “I don’t know, that’s something we’ll have to chat about over the next few weeks. Physically, it’s the best I’ve been but what can I say – it’s just frustrating to crash at the vital moment last week and then I learnt the hard way today, that’s for sure.”