Luke Rowe: I've cards to play in the Classics

Team Sky give Welshman and Stannard leadership roles

The form is where it should be, the morale topped up after ending a long spell without a win; Luke Rowe is relishing the chance to impress on the opening weekend of the Belgian Classics.

Rowe, 26, will spearhead Team Sky's challenge alongside Ian Stannard in both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. According the Welshman he has cards to play throughout the Spring as the British team search for their first Cobbled Monument.

"The form is pretty good. I've been back in Europe for over two weeks now and I've had one easy week before having one good week of training with a good few blocks. I've rested up this week so that I'm fresh for the weekend," Rowe told Cyclingnews from Team Sky's Kortrijk base in Belgium.

"I'm targeting the weekend but I'm fully focused on Saturday and not really thinking about Sunday. As soon as we get Saturday out of the way I'll fully focus on Sunday. It's too early think about Kuurne, and we just want to take it one day at a time."

Despite having not yet won either Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders since their 2010 inception Team Sky have had a successful run in both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with Stannard winning the former in both 2014 and 2015. Rowe finished fourth in last year's edition of the race and backed that up with an impressive fifth place in the Tour of Flanders.

"We've got Stannard who has won the race twice and is in really good form but I've got my own role to play. I've got a free role to play and I finished fourth last year, eighth the year before and 11th the year before that, so I've been there or thereabouts. I've got my own cards to play," he pointed out.

Team Sky's approach to the Classics appears clear.

They have moved Geraint Thomas out of the spring contingent, with the Welshman concentrating on the Giro d'Italia. Michal Kwiatkowski is no longer guaranteed of racing in Belgium as he too has shifted his targets. Ben Swift's departure and the emergence of younger riders leaves both Stannard and Rowe as the elder statesmen for the Belgian spring.

Rowe has indicated that the dialed in leadership may help the team get over the line in the attempts to win a major race.

"With Geraint and Kwiatkowski both staying away from the cobbles this year it comes down to myself and Stannard this year. Over the last few years we've both been in the finales, with Ian winning Omloop twice," he said.

"For most of the Classics it's going to be me and him trying to finish things off and win one of these big Classics. For races like Kuurne and Scheldeprijs a lot depends on how they are raced and we've obviously got someone like Danny van Poppel but for the hillier races it's down to me and Ian."

Rowe heads into the opening week in fine fettle having picked up an early win during the Herald Sun Tour. His last victory came on a stage of the Tour of Britain in his first season at pro level, in 2012. While he admits that the stage win in Australia in February was not against a WorldTour field, it has given him a spring in his step.

"It's been a long time coming. I've not crossed the line first in a bike race for a very long time. I've spent most of my time working for other guys and the chances I have had have come in the Classics, which are super hard to win. Just getting that opportunity, I grabbed it with both hands. It's no secret that it's not the biggest race in the calendar but a win is a win and I'll take that. It gave me some morale and some confidence."

Peter Sagan's strike rate

While Rowe and Stannard can only concentrate on their own form and their own performances they have studied the condition and strength of their main rivals. Although Fabian Cancellara has slipped into retirement, Rowe believes that the peloton is stacked with quality.

"Reputation is still there. You have to remember that the last Classics season only finished around ten months ago, and already you can see who is going well," he said.

"Peter Sagan is Peter Sagan and van Avermaet has worn a yellow jersey already this season. You've always got to look out for the Quick-Step guys because they're super strong, so while no one has any bragging right yet because no one has won a Classic yet, if you look at the last five to ten years you know who the guys to watch out for are."

The loss of Cancellara has been put forward as a possible variable that could affect how the Classics season plays out. The theory is that Trek-Segafredo, freed from the responsibility of working for the Swiss rider, will no longer be shackled with dictating the action.

Such a suggestion may well be true, admits Rowe, but he correctly suggests that the American team still have a strong squad, and that the effort to control the races will be shared by other leading teams.

"Not having Fabian there will put a slightly different dynamic into the race because when Fabian was there you knew that Trek would take control of the racing and bring back the break. It's a job that Quick-Step also take up, and on paper they've probably got the strongest line-up at almost every Classics. But Trek still has a really strong team. They've got Stuyven who won Kuurne last year in fine fashion, and some other super strong guys. You've got to keep an eye out for those guys."

"At any race, at any point in the year, no matter on the parcours, Sagan can win," Rowe added when the of the World Champion was brought into the equation.

"He's an incredible bike rider and already, having raced against him at Down Under, you can see that Bora take on a share of the work and nine times out of ten he will deliver. For sure Bora will back him 100 per cent and why wouldn't you? He's got such a good strike rate."

For Rowe, Stannard and the rest of Team Sky, the objective remains the same, and according to the Welshman they will concentrate on their race and their tactics instead of being caught up in mind games and other rivals' potential moves.

"As soon as you look at a race and try and beat certain individuals then it's game over," he warned.

"There are 200 guys in the bike race, and I'm not going to say that all of them can win, but there up to 30 or 40 who can come out on top this weekend. There have been some random winners at the Classics over the years but it's often the strong guys who come out on top.

"Stuyven popped up last year and smashed everyone and if you roll the clock back a few years not many people expected Vansummeren to win Roubaix but as soon as you race against one guy it can fall about. You just need to race for yourself, and your team, and then see who is left."

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