Team Sky continued their fine run in the Belgian Classics with third place in Gent-Wevelgem courtesy of man of the moment, Geraint Thomas. The Welshman was in the thick of an epic day of racing on the cobbles and despite missing out on victory to Luca Paolini and second place to Niki Terpstra, the E3 Harelbeke winner further cemented his place as a favourite for the Tour of Flanders.
"We expected a battlefield today and that's exactly what we got. It started early and at a certain point it simply wasn't possible for a number of groups to come back," Team Sky's Servais Knaven told Cyclingnews at the finish.
Thomas was once again a match for some of the more seasoned Classics experts and formed the break of the race along with Stijn Vandenbergh, Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo), Daniel Oss (BMC), Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal), Paolini, and Terpstra. The lone figure of Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal) dangled up ahead having slipped clear with around 80 kilometres remaining.
Thomas's race looked in jeopardy when he crashed after losing control in the violent cross winds but he was able to recover and regain contact with his rivals before the finale unfolded with Paolini taking the win and Terpstra second ahead of the Team Sky rider.
"I think Geraint was really strong, once again. You have to be super strong to survive a day like that after Harelbeke on Friday. He's recovered really well and was racing with the best again," said Knaven, clearly relieved that Thomas had come through the race unscathed.
The only real blemish in Team Sky's performance was that their leader was left isolated when Etixx-QuickStep began to decimate the field. Only Christian Knees was able to hold the lead group of favourites when it was reduced to 40 riders, while Etixx had five men to BMC Racing's four.
"Christian was there and he helped him but in a moment like that you just have to make sure that you're inside the top ten and stay there. As soon as you drift a little bit further back it becomes so much harder."
Ian Stannard, who defended his title in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last month has not been his usual self since crashing in Milan-San Remo and was unable to hang onto the contenders in both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, where he failed to finish the latter. Knaven pointed to the extremely windy and dangerous conditions and Stannard's crashes last year but confirmed that the rider was not yet at 100 per cent.
"A day like this is a special day. Of course it's about having the legs but you can't be afraid to ride in the wind like this. If you're just a little bit uncertain then you'll never make it to the front. I can imagine with Ian, after last year, it could be that in his head but I don't know, I've not talked to him. He's not 100 per cent recovered from his Milan-San Remo crash."
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