Nothing sums up the place the Tour of Flanders occupies in Geraint Thomas' affections quite like the wistful comment he made on sitting down with reporters on the Friday before last year's Paris-Roubaix: "It's kind of a shame we can't do the Tour of Flanders again this weekend," he said, casually relegating the Queen of the Classics to the status of a consolation prize.
After defending a place in the top five overall deep into the third week of last year's Tour de France, it was inevitable that Thomas, on the cusp of his 30th birthday, would finally be persuaded by Team Sky to devote himself to stage racing on a more permanent basis.
The switch in emphasis has already yielded overall victory at the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice this year, but even though Thomas is apparently being groomed for a metamorphosis of the kind enjoyed by Bradley Wiggins at around the same age, the Tour of Flanders, it seems, was a non-negotiable part of his 2016 race programme.
"He personally wants to do it, and I've always said that at the end of the day you've got to listen to what the lads want to do, and let them follow their dreams and give them some opportunities in other things," Team Sky's head of performance Rod Ellingworth told Cyclingnews.
After an early-season campaign on stage racing duty, Thomas links up with Team Sky's Classics unit for the first time at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, eschewing the conventional wisdom that a contender for victory in the Ronde will have spent the preceding weeks dutifully familiarising himself once again with the cobbles and hills of the Flemish Ardennes. His last race was the Volta a Catalunya, which he abandoned after four stages as he turned his attentions to Flanders.
"Last year before he won E3, he hadn't ridden on the cobbles in the lead-up," Ellingworth pointed out, a feat repeated by new signing Michal Kwiatkowski this time around in Harelbeke. "He hasn't touched the cobbles all year and then he shows up and wins Harelbeke. I think you can do it."
"It is a gamble, but I think G [Thomas] is up for it. He wants to do it and we're happy for him to do it. It's all about condition. If you've got the condition, you can do it."
A notable facet of Team Sky's stage racing preparation has been the marked weight loss of their leaders. When Bradley Wiggins switched his attention to Paris-Roubaix in 2014 and 2015, for instance, he estimated that he was some 8 kilogrammes heavier than when he had won the Tour de France. Ellingworth does not feel, however, that Thomas' stage racing focus has changed his physique unduly.
"I think he's still the same guy. He's not a lot different to where he was for E3 last year and where he is now, he's in pretty similar condition," Ellingworth said, adding that the comparison with Wiggins was an apt one.
"When you actually think about, G's still a current Olympic team pursuit champion and a world record holder. The diversity of what he can do is a bit like what we've seen at the past with Brad. These guys are talented bike riders. He has ambitions for stage races and obviously Paris-Nice was a huge objective and a job well done, so he's still on for the stage races, but this is just a personal hit at Flanders."
Thomas made his Tour of Flanders debut in 2010 and enjoyed his first notable performance the following year, when he finished 10th in the dramatic final edition on the old parcours over the Muur and Bosberg.
The Welshman's best showing on the new finale is his 8th place in 2014, and though he entered last year's Ronde as one of the favourites following his victory at E3 Harelbeke the previous week, he was unable to bridge up to Alexander Kristoff's winning attack and reached Oudenaarde in 14th place.
If Thomas was Team Sky's obvious leader at the Tour of Flanders a year ago, this time around he is likely to share the role with Kwiatkowski, who was so impressive in disposing of world champion Peter Sagan in Harelbeke last week. The presence of Ian Stannard, third in the same race, and Luke Rowe, who was to the fore at Gent-Wevelgem, means that Team Sky ought to have strength in numbers in the final 50 kilometres.
"I think with him and Kwiatkowski, with Ian and Luke sat in behind them, we've got a bloody good group there," Ellingworth said. Despite Sky's steady improvement on the cobbles over the past two years, however, he is aware, too, that the success or failure of their Classics campaign will be judged on the first two Sundays in April.
"We still haven't won a Monument," he said. "We're still hungry. We believe in the lads we've got and we'll try again on Sunday. The lads are dead up for Sunday."