Five years after they launched, Team Sky have finally come of age on the cobbles and are enjoying their best classics season to date. Ian Stannard kicked off their successful spring in early March, with a second consecutive victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and Geraint Thomas ramped it up last week, triumphing at E3 Harelbeke and finishing on the podium in Wevelgem two days later.
Thomas was Team Sky’s best finisher at the Tour of Flanders last season in eighth place – his best result at the Flemish monument. Following his blistering start on the cobbles, the Welshman has jumped up to second favourite for victory this weekend with the Belgian bookmakers behind Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo).
It’s the first time that Thomas and his team have enjoyed such a status at the race but he is taking it all in his stride.
“Saying you're one of the favourites and stuff, it is really nice. I'm kind of treating it like I did with any track race - we went into most of those races as favourites,” Thomas said following his recon of the Tour of Flanders route. “I'm just focusing on myself as an individual, and on the team and how we want to race. Obviously a Classic has a hundred more variables than a team pursuit on the track, but I can't control most of it. We just have to do what we can.”
This year marks the first time in more than a decade that neither Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) nor Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) will ride the race. Between them, they have dominated the cobbled Classics – winning six of the past 10 editions of Flanders. With them out of contention, Thomas admits that the whole dynamic of the race has changed.
“I think all the other riders feel like they can win it,” he said. “It will make it more of an open race. I think it will be more tactical; there will be guys flying off up the road all the time. There will be that whole thing 'who will ride?' I think it will be a big chess game on wheels whereas in the past it was maybe 'last time up the Kwaremont Fabian would go and it was a case of who could go with him; who had the legs.”
While this weekend could be the making of Thomas and his position as a leader within the team – if he hasn’t already done that this season – it will mark the beginning of the end for his teammate Bradley Wiggins. The pair have ridden together since the team’s inception in 2010, with Thomas more often than not playing the supporting role. Wiggins is due to take joint leadership for his final race, Paris-Roubaix, but will play super domestique for Thomas this Sunday.
The 34-year-old Wiggins, who won the final time trial at the Three Days of De Panne on Thursday, has just three more races of his WorldTour road career left. However, with big goals to think about, Thomas hasn’t been dwelling on that and says he will attack the coming races in much the same way as he has in the past.
“It's been exactly the same. It hasn't felt any different. I actually forget. It's not like he's going to die, he'll still be around,” Thomas laughed.
“Sentimental stuff doesn't really come into it. Maybe when you retire and you look back and you were part of Brad's last race or whatever, but at the moment I haven't really thought about it at all.”
A new era
For Team Sky, as the older riders think about the next move in their careers, it seems that many of their younger stars – especially their Brit pack – have made a big step forwards. Thomas and Stannard are two that have enjoyed the limelight in recent months, while new signing Andy Fenn has flourished in his new surroundings.
“I think it’s been a long time coming… I think we’re really coming of age as a team,” said Luke Rowe, another of the team’s success stories. “Quickstep and these strong super teams who have conquered the classics for years, it all became realistic that we can beat them and I think confidence is massive going into these classics and I think we’re just riding a wave at the moment and we’ve got to keep it rolling for another couple of weeks in terms of the classics.”
Rowe joined Team Sky in 2012 and has been playing a similar role to Thomas during that time. Like his fellow Welshman, Rowe has taken another big step forward in his development and the team are looking to him more and more to produce the goods. He hopes that he can play a crucial role in the latter stages of the race but says that he isn’t thinking of his own chances.
“We’ve got different guys for certain parts of the race and my aim is to support the team but toward the back end of the race, so to get through that first fight and don’t be one of the first guys to be used up and hopefully be there when there are 30-50 guys and it really comes to the crunch time,” said Rowe. “G is in incredible form and he’s going to be the leader come this Sunday so I’ll do everything I can, bury myself for him."
“There is a chance to go under the radar and do something but as long as G is in the race, I’ve got no intention of flicking him like that. That’s more of a Belgian thing to do I think. I’ll stay by his side and be loyal.”
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