It was a bruising afternoon for many on the opening day of Paris-Nice, but Team Sky could be pleased with their efforts as Luke Rowe guided Michal Kwiatkowski and Egan Bernal through the crosswinds that blew the race apart.
A number of high-profile general classification riders were caught out and lost time as the race repeatedly split into echelons, including defending champion Marc Soler (Movistar). Ivan Sosa was one of them for Sky, but their two leaders were always up front and out of trouble.
More than that, they were regularly on the front foot. Rowe, who missed the opening weekend of the Classics through illness, was a driving force in the key echelons in the final 50km.
Kwiatkowski, who won Tirreno-Adriatico last year, was also aggressive and took advantage of the intermediate sprints to pick up five bonus seconds, which, in a race that has been decided by less in each of the past three editions, could prove decisive.
"I've had better birthdays, but we had some fun racing out there so I'll take it," said Rowe, who turned 29 on Sunday. "It was a typical day in the first half of Paris-Nice really. We were on the right end of the splits each and every time with Kwiato and Egan, our two GC guys.
"It's a race of two halves this year - that's clear cut. There's the first three days before the time trial and then after that we go into the mountains. We've just got to get through these first few days unscathed. If we take time, great, but the most important thing is not to lose time. So that's one day done and a big tick in the box there. Kwiato took some bonus seconds as well. And when all the team buys into it like that and contributes where they can, it's usually going to go pretty well. It was a great first day at Paris-Nice."
While Kwiatkowski, a Classics specialist and former winner of E3-Harelbeke, surprised few with his power and positioning, the same could not be said of Bernal.
The young Colombian is far from familiar with such racing conditions and is at his best in the mountains. Yet, after a positioning error cost him at last month's Tour Colombia, he made no mistake at Paris-Nice, staying always near the front alongside compatriot Nairo Quintana, and even coming through to drive the echelon forward on more than one occasion.
"A ride like that from Egan is just pure class," said Rowe.
"I was trying to explain to him this morning about how to get back into an echelon and how to ride and then he just goes and smashes it. You've either got it or you haven't and he's certainly got it. Class."
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