Team Sky won’t line up in Compiègne on Sunday with a top favourite for Paris-Roubaix, but in Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard, they have two leaders who have both been riding upward curves the past couple of seasons, and should complement each other to make an impact on the sharp end of the race.
Despite suffering from a sore throat since the Tour of Flanders last Sunday, Rowe told Cyclingnews he has never approached the Hell of the North with such confidence. After something of a breakthrough eighth place at the race last year, this season the Welshman has proved to himself and to his rivals that he belongs at that level.
He started his Classics campaign by sparking the crucial move at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, spending the day with Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and Tiesj Benoot and taking fourth, while his fifth place at Flanders on Sunday was not only his best ever finish at the race but also Team Sky’s.
“I’m on a bit of a high at the moment – everything seems to be going well,” Rowe told Cyclingnews in Antwerp ahead of Scheldeprijs on Wednesday. “Roubaix’s the preferred race, it’s where my heart lies, I prefer it as a race and I think it suits me better as a rider.
“I had a slight sore throat the past couple of days, that’s a bit of a pain. Scheldeprijs is about taking it easy – as easy as you can take a pro race – and trying to recover before Sunday.”
Stannard won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2014 and 2015, but shook up his race programme this year by skipping the traditional ‘opening weekend’ in Belgium in late Ferbruary in the hope of making a bigger impact in the Monuments of early April.
After finishing third at E3 Harelbeke a couple of weeks ago and trying a solo move at Flanders, he feels the change of approach is having the desired effects.
“I’m feeling fresher this year. I think I’m at the same standard, I just feel a bit fresher with it all,” Stannard told Cyclingnews before calling it a day at Scheldeprijs when reaching the team bus for the first of the local laps.
“I’m recovering a bit now. I was tired for the first few days – it was a tough race – but I’m looking forward to Sunday now.”
Joint leadership and muddy conditions
Since their inception seven years ago, Team Sky have faced criticism about their approach to one-day racing, with tactical naivety a charge often leveled at the British squad, which has an infinitely more impressive stage race record.
That said, while a Monument may continue to elude them, there has been a notable improvement over the last couple of years and, after taking on Flanders with four different options, joint leadership will again be the plan for Roubaix.
“We’re in a good position, myself and Ian will probably lead the team on Sunday, and it gives us options," said Rowe. "When it comes to the final it will be a case of speaking to each other, deciding on our tactics and taking it from there."
As for any specific tactics, the Welshman hinted that they might look to shake up the race early on, taking matters into their own hands rather than responding to the moves of the race’s strongest men.
“I think the three guys who finished on the podium were outright the three strongest guys to be fair to them. So I learned that they’re strong, but that’s nothing I didn’t know before, so maybe on Sunday it’ll be a case of trying to get ahead of them, wait for them to come up to us.
“It’s so unpredictable, Roubaix; it’s so hard to make a plan and decide what you’re going to do. It’s a case of getting into that final 20, 30, 40 guys and playing it from there.”
The weather forecasts for France’s Nord département on Sunday continue to fluctuate, but there is still a good chance of rain at some point, which would make a mud bath of the 27 sectors of pavé, conditions that have contributed much over the years to the race’s legendary status.
“You’ve got to be a nutter to look forward to a wet Roubaix,” joked Rowe, before glancing at Stannard, who turns out to be one such ‘nutter’.
“A dry Roubaix is probably nicer to race, but a wet one – in terms of my riding characteristics – is probably better for me,” said the 28-year-old.
“If it’s wet, it’s wet – I don’t care,” adds Rowe. “I’ve been focused on this race for six months so a bit of rain ain't gonna bother me. Bring it on."