The finish line of the Tour of Flanders is a frenzied place, as soigneurs and camera crews argue the toss with the security cordon and then swarm around the riders as they wheel to a halt, but Luke Rowe (Sky) cut a remarkably equable figure amid the maelstrom after his fifth place finish in Oudenaarde.
Team Sky entered the Tour of Flanders with genuine hopes that they might finally break their duck at the Monuments, but while Michal Kwiatkowski’s invention was the genesis of the winning move, Rowe would prove their best finisher, coming home in a chasing group 49 seconds behind winner Peter Sagan (Tinkoff).
Kwiatkowski fell back on the Oude Kwaremont, and come the final ascent of the Paterberg, only Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) and Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) were truly in contention to deny the flying Sagan. The final results, Rowe said, did not lie.
“We had numbers in the front. Tactically we were really good, we didn’t miss any moves, but the three strongest guys who were away in the end were the three strongest guys in the race,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do about that.”
Rowe had himself excelled on the Paterberg as he bludgeoned his way across to the principal chasing group in the company of Alexander Kristoff (Katusha). He had teammate Geraint Thomas for company in that 13-strong group, but time has a habit of standing still in the final kilometres of the Tour of Flanders.
Kristoff and I only went across late, on the Paterberg, and as soon as we got there, everybody worked pretty well,” Rowe said. “But when guys like that have ten seconds, it’s hard. Ten seconds here is like a minute anywhere else. It’s so hard to close, especially with that tailwind.”
As the group drew nearer to Oudenaarde, the gap to the lone leader Sagan, not to mention the pursuing Cancellara and Vanmarcke grew wider. Rowe and Thomas had to resize their ambitions on the hoof.
“It was always going to be hard and coming into the last two or three kilometres, we knew we weren’t going to catch them. I said to G that I was just going to go for the sprint and focus on that because we weren’t going to catch them,” Rowe said.
In the event, only last year’s winner Kristoff could out-last Rowe in the sprint for fourth place, and the Welshman’s result is Sky’s best in seven tilts at the Ronde. As a unit, the success or failure of Sky’s Classics campaign might be just on the win column in the Monuments, but for the 26-year-old Rowe, the position – and the performance – were a further indication of his growing assurance at this level after his 4th place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February.
“I think I finished fifth and we had G [Thomas] up there [in 12th - ed.] We didn’t win but we’re certainly not too disappointed,” Rowe said. “And for me personally that was a pretty big ride. That was massive for me. So yeah, I’m happy.”
It was only Rowe’s fourth participation at the Tour of Flanders, but his observation that it had been the toughest he could remember was echoed by many with more experience in the Ronde under their belts. “QuickStep took it up quite early to make it a hard race and make the most of the numbers they always have at the end. It was the most aggressive Flanders I’ve done, it was pretty full gas.”
Rowe’s Sky team, too, were an aggressive presence in the race. After sending Ian Stannard up the road ahead of the finale, the team leader Kwiatkowski looked to pre-empt Cancellara’s seemingly inevitable move on the Kwaremont by zipping off the front at Nukurke, just ahead of the Kruisberg.
“He said to us he didn’t feel top, top, so he wasn’t going to wait for the Kwaremont, he was going to go earlier,” Rowe said. “Tactically, it was a great move and then it just came down to who had the best legs and Sagan obviously did, so there’s not much you can do when someone has better legs.”