Team Sky dominated stage 3 of the Tour of Alps with Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa finishing first and second in Funes, with the Welshman taking the fuchsia-coloured leader’s jersey from Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) staking his claim to overall victory with two stages remaining.
While Thomas and Landa impressed as they went on the attack on the climb to the finish, it was the collective strength of Team Sky that must have hurt the morale of their rivals.
The British squad is riding the Tour of the Alps with a handicap but still bossed the race. Team Sky started the Tour of the Alps two men down, with six instead of eight riders, after initially entries such as Diego Rosa and Elia Viviani were diverted to the Ardennes Classics or given time to train for the Giro d’Italia.
Team Sky has a 28-rider roster but with injuries and other important races forced them to make some tough selection decisions. They and Thomas reckoned that it was better to have six strong climbers rather than a complete team.
"As long as you have a strong six, you’re okay and we certainly have a strong six," Thomas said on Tuesday.
Today his teammates proved it.
Team Sky set a high temp in the final 50km of the stage to Funes, including the only major climb of the day. First Pete Kennaugh and then a strong Ian Boswell rode on the front on the narrow and often twisting Alpe Rodengo Zumis climb. The constant, perhaps power-metre managed pace they set was far too much for many in the peloton with only a select group staying in their slipstream.
On the descent and then valley road, Phil Deignan, Boswell again and Kenny Elissonde took control, lining out the peloton and warning them what they were about to face on the gradual 8.7km climb to the finish. It was clinical stuff but impressive to watch, recalling Team Sky’s frequent dominance of the Tour de France mountain stages.
The likes of High Carthy (Cannondale-Drapac) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale) tried to break Team Sky’s grip in the finale with some accelerations off the front but that only help Landa and Thomas set up their one-two finish.
"Thomas is a force to be reckoned with at the moment," Carthy said, showing his respect. "The whole team that he has around him is impressively strong."
Elissonde finished 28th on the stage and was the first to celebrate with Landa and Thomas. The success was also his.
"We managed our effort very well. We were happy to let others do the work until the second half of the stage, so that we still had the numbers at the end," he explained before descending to the warmth of the Team Sky bus.
"We’ve been looking for a victory since the start of the race and now we have it. When you pull hard like that and then see your team leader attack like a rocket, it’s an amazing sensation. It makes all of the effort you’ve made really worthwhile."
Thomas agreed and praised his teammates for their work. The six riders here at the Tour of the Alps will form the core of the Team Sky squad for the Giro d’Italia. Viviani will add a sprint option, with other climbers and rouleurs expected to complete the nine-rider line-up. Thomas knows that team unity and a common goal will be vital ingredients of an eventual podium spot or even overall success.
"It’s a great team here. We’re all getting along really well and we can all speak English really well, so that makes a huge difference. I think we’re in a good place. Morale is good and that’s reflected in the way we race," Thomas said.
It is unclear how much Mikel Landa’s English has improved over the winter but he is a key part of Team Sky’s squad at the Tour of the Alps and the Giro d’Italia. He was third in the 2015 Giro d’Italia and knows how to ride the Corsa Rosa thanks to his two years at Astana.
Landa attacked to try to win the stage. He looked strong and confident as he turned over his big chain ring on the lower slopes but did not seem upset that Thomas had stolen the limelight.
"You always want to win but I’m happy all the same,” he said behind the podium area.
"I felt good yesterday and so I tried to go for it. We have Geraint here for the overall, so I let him take the time bonus. But I’m happy. It was about time for me to find some form and good feelings."
Thomas may now have the upper hand when it comes to claiming team leadership for the Giro d’Italia but Landa has the experience and seems back to his best. He is happy to let the road decide who becomes Team Sky’s eventually protected leader in a month’s time on similar mountain roads.
"Me and G (Geraint) can form a good duo," he insisted.
"We’ll both start the Giro d’Italia as team leaders and it’ll be the road that decides who is the better rider."