Great Britain's Russell Downing will make his Classics debut this weekend as he forms part of a powerful Sky squad determined to deliver Edvald Boasson Hagen to victory at the start virtuel of the Belgian season.
Downing will line up alongside Boasson Hagen at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne on Sunday. The 31 year-old and has been busy re-acclimatising to European conditions after starting his season in the warmer climes of Australia (at the Tour Down Under) and the Middle East (at the Tour of Qatar).
"I'm feeling good, excited obviously. The Classics are something I've always really wanted to do and it's great to finally have the chance," he told Cyclingnews on Tuesday. "I've spent the last couple of days getting back to grips with the [European] weather."
Despite the jet-set start to his first season in the ProTour, Downing indicated that his condition was improving as he gets ready to embark on the European season proper.
"The legs are feeling pretty good [after Qatar]. I had the same recovery as I did after the Tour Down Under; three days riding easy. I did a five hour ride in the snow yesterday which was good."
Adding poignancy to his first appearance at the Classics is the fact that his team will contain one of the main contenders. "[Edvald Boasson Hagen's] going to the main guy for us on Saturday. I'm hoping to be there to help him in the end."
Bookmakers have installed Boasson Hagen alongside Tom Boonen (Quick Step) and Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) as the short-priced favourites for success this weekend. Sharing the peloton with the trio in Qatar gave Downing a similar impression of the riders who will present the stiffest challenge to his team leader.
"Boonen looked to be in quite good shape. He and Gilbert went on to Oman too. The Belgian races are obviously really important for them, but everyone will be going for it and most of the guys will have had a pretty similar lead-up."
Answering the call
Downing's call up to the Sky roster for this weekend came after teammate Kurt-Alse Arvesen was ruled out with a broken collarbone sustained on the opening road stage in Qatar.
"I was a reserve for these first few races. I was supposed to be doing [the Clasica de] Almería this weekend, so there's been a bit of a reshuffle. From what I've heard Kurt's doing well, but we've obviously got to have a full line-up for this weekend."
Although changes have been made to his immediate schedule, Downing is expected to return to his original programme next week, with shorter stage races to precede a return to the Classics at Amstel Gold. "I'll do Omloop and Kuurne then head to the Tour of Murcia next week."