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Bernard Eisel (Sky) on the way to the finish.
Austrian confident Wiggins can slot in to Sky's classics team
Sky's 2013 classics campaign was instantly written off as a failure within moments of the end of Paris-Roubaix and the team's novel preparation was immediately dismissed as a fad. Such is the hyper-reality of an era of snap judgments.
Ten months on, as he builds towards this season's classics, Bernhard Eisel can only smile as he remembers the reaction to Sky's performance on the cobbles last year. Certainly, the classics unit's return did not match that of their stage racing squad, but as Eisel pointed out, ultimately only one team came away content from last year's Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
"I heard so many guys saying we had a bad classics campaign, but who didn't? Cancellara won both and that's what counts," Eisel told Cyclingnews. "If you don't win Flanders or Roubaix, then you had a shit classics campaign. That's what it boils down to in the end."
Winner of Gent-Wevelgem in 2010, Eisel knows of the value of the earlier cobbled races in the arc of an individual rider's career, but for the major teams, he believes that the all-engrossing spectacles of De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix completely eclipse everything else in March and April.
"If you win Waregem, Harelbeke or Gent-Wevelgem, for a rider that's a big result, because for him that could mean he has a contract for the next four to six years because teams know he has the potential to be up there," Eisel said. "The media just slaughters you if you don't win them [Flanders and Roubaix] but Fabian won both of them, so what should we do? Fire the rest and just pay him?"
The focus on Sky's tilt at the classics is set to be even more intense in 2014, as Bradley Wiggins prepares for his first start at Paris-Roubaix since joining the team. Given that Sky already boasts a tightly-knit classics core – just this winter, Eisel spent almost six weeks training with Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas in Australia – could Wiggins' cameo prove to be a disruption?
"Of course, we're a good group together but it's pretty easy to come in, we all know each other really well. I don't see any trouble there," Eisel said. "Let's see how he goes and what his goals are. He's probably going to be that flying that we have to take care of him and he's the captain, or else he says 'guys, I'm just a helper, tell me what to do.' But if he's on, then he's definitely one of the main contenders."
Wiggins' touted appearances at Dwars door Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix are not the only tweaks for Sky this time around. Last season, Eisel and company were withheld from Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico and instead trained at altitude in preparation for the classics, but the idea has been shelved for 2014.
"I'm doing Tirreno and I'm looking forward to that and Strade Bianche," Eisel said. "Although I have to say I actually enjoyed my time training at altitude on Mount Teide and I think my form wasn't too bad afterwards. But still, I'm a racer, I like racing and I prefer doing that."
After kicking off his season at the Tour Down Under last month, Eisel is currently in action at the Tour of Qatar, a race whose peculiarities make it, in his opinion, "probably one of the toughest races in the season." Eisel showed his early-season condition by making the splits forced by Omega Pharma-QuickStep on stages 2 and 4, but explained that a moment's inattentiveness had proved costly on the opening day.
"I definitely had the legs but I lost my concentration for a minute because I know the roads here too well," he said. "I was in position and I thought, 'I'm good here, don't stress,' but I should have stressed for two more seconds, because I would have stayed there and not lost ten minutes. But that's Qatar – as soon as you lose concentration, you're in the second group."
It's no secret that today's early-season races are run off at an altogether different intensity to bygone eras, when riders would routinely turn up on the French Riviera with barely a thousand kilometres in the legs and carrying the excesses of winter around their waists. But even within the context of his own career, Eisel has seen a discernible shift in attitudes towards racing in February.
"It's really changed now because riders are preparing harder and longer, but that's why it's called professional sport – there's no time to play around anymore," he said, estimating that the peloton's general fitness is higher now than it was at this point last year.
"It was a light winter in Europe this year, too, so everybody could train at home, whereas last year the guys who were in the south had a big advantage because of the cold in Europe. This year it's pretty much levelled out."
So far in Qatar, Tom Boonen and Omega Pharma-QuickStep have been on a different plane to everyone else, however. "QuickStep is by far the strongest team here," said Eisel, though he knows, too, that the true reckoning will come on the cobbles in April.
"Of course, it's always the same, when you see QuickStep going like this, you wonder what they're going to be like in two months' time. But at the same time I know I can build up and probably some of them are already on peak form," Eisel said. "What counts is in two months' time."