Much has been said about Geraint Thomas' return to the Tour of Flanders. Sky's team leader for Sunday last rode the Ronde in 2011, where he finished 10th, aged just 24. Last year the Welshman was at the UCI Track World Championships in Melbourne in the lead into his Olympic campaign. With a full-focus on the road this season, Thomas has been zeroing in on the Tour of Flanders. Eventual successful would mean he is just the second British rider to win Flanders after Tom Simpson in 1961.
Asked if he was feeling the pressure, with Team Sky opting for a Tenerife training camp in the build up to their classics campaign in a bid to replicate the conquests of 2012's Tour de France squad, Thomas admitted there was a certain expectation surrounding his Flanders crusade.
"I guess so," he said on Friday evening at Team Sky's hotel in Kortrijk. "But no more than sitting in the chairs two minutes before an Olympic final in London. That's pretty intense. It's just one of those things. Pressure's just the norm and you've just got to deal with it... I seemed to have coped with it okay so far."
The hour of power
The squad's time in Tenerife under the guidance of Team Sky's head of performance support, Tim Kerrison, focused on shorter, punchier efforts and sprints at the end of rides on tougher days, reversing the order when there was a requirement to be fresh – an approach that Thomas said is similar to track training.
"I definitely feel like the training he's [Kerrison's] doing is definitely setting us up well for the last hour of racing," Thomas said. "So far anyway. Flanders will be longer again but I definitely think being specific and concentrating on certain areas certainly helps."
Team Sky directeur sporif Servais Knaven is firm in his belief that Thomas can win on Sunday, and the man himself says "I don't see why not."
Growing in confidence, the 26-year-old has still found room for disappointment within the build-up in Belgium. At E3 Harelbeke, Thomas was part of an elite group of riders left in eventual winner Fabian Cancellara's wake on the Oude Kwaremont. He would eventually finish in fourth place with that other man of the moment, Peter Sagan in second and Daniel Oss in third. Finishing just over a minute behind the Swiss rider, on the same time as Sagan and Oss, Thomas indicated that if he was faced with the same situation again, he could follow.
"I don't see why not," he said. "Obviously Sagan and Fabian are different animals at the minute but I don't see why I wouldn't be able to hang on in there. I felt tired getting in to the finishes but when you look back it seems that everyone else was more tired than me. That was encouraging to see."
"For sure it's always disappointing not to get on the podium, but you think to yourself if we get a result down the line you won't even remember E3. At the same time they're still big races and you still want to do well in them. It's all down to this next 10 days really."
Strength in numbers
Knaven made it clear on Friday that Team Sky's best chance for a win at Flanders will come via attacking early, and certainly prior to the last two laps over the Kwaremont and Paterberg. Team Sky has shown over the last fortnight of racing that they have a number of options with Mathew Hayman, Ian Stannard and Edvald Boasson Hagen particular standouts. It's where Thomas sees that Team Sky has got a distinct advantage over his rivals.
"No disrespect to them, but they're not the strongest teams either," he explained. They can be quite isolated from quite far out at times. It's just a matter of if we've got riders up the road, it's easier for the guys left in the peloton; they don't necessarily have to ride if another move goes or whatever... Similarly, if you're up the road and I know Eddy's coming across then I'm not going to ride."
Thomas' teammate, Chris Sutton who did not make the final selection for the Flanders, told Cyclingnews earlier this week that Team Sky was prepared to "die for each other" in their bid to win. The statement was reminiscent of the war-like mentality that the grand tour squad adopted in 2012 at the Tour de France, where Bradley Wiggins prevailed.
"There's definitely an element of 'us against them'," Thomas admitted. "Not them as in Quick-Step, but the whole peloton really. It's what every team sort of feels. It is like you go to war in a way. You've all got your plans and what you want to do and you all want to be in certain places at the same time. Everyone just commits to the leaders and that's it."
Unwilling to discount the chances of Tom Boonen, who is a way off the best form that he showed last year to win a record-equalling third Flanders title, and prepared for battle against strongmen Cancellara and Sagan, Thomas believes that with the focus on his more-favoured opponents, that he has a distinct advantage
"I'm not as big of a rider as those two [Cancellara and Sagan]," he said. "I can just sort of watch those two battle it out in a way and sneak under the radar a bit. I don't think either of them will be scared of me at all and I've just got to try and use that. I don't think there's much love lost there either, is there. From what I've read anyway..."