Team Sky endured a disappointing day at the Tour of Flanders with Edvald Boasson Hagen finishing in 17th after Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack Leopard) had blown the race apart on the on the final ascents of the Kwaremont and the Paterberg.
When the Swiss rider attacked he was swiftly followed by his expected challenger, Peter Sagan (Cannondale), with Boasson Hagen the best of the rest as the Norwegian tried to remain in contention.
However, the Sky rider was unable to keep the pair in sight on the Kwaremont and eventually helped formed the chase group that would decide the minor placings. Sky's co-captain, Geraint Thomas, crashed before the second climb of the Kwaremont and although he regained contact with the peloton, was unable to respond when Cancellara threw down the gauntlet. The Welshman eventually finished in 41st place, 2:49 behind Cancellara.
"I think everyone did what they could but Cancellara was really strong and he took more than a minute in the last 12 kilometres. Edvald was there on his wheel but Cancellara was just going too fast," Sky's team director Servais Knaven said at the finish.
Sky's marginal gains approach to the sport of cycling has seen them take a number of unorthodox approaches to training and racing. From dedicated warm-downs, weather pattern strategies for prologues, their "guru" Tim Kerrison, to the less orthodox position of simply signing riders with a larger check book than most teams.
However, this winter they made the unique decision of basing their Classics squad in Tenerife for long periods, and despite promising results in the races leading up to Flanders they were left empty handed. The island has been typically used by grand tour riders.
Mat Hayman, who finished on the podium at Dwars door Vlaanderen, came down with a bug on the evening before the race and Bernhard Eisel started the race after recovering from the same symptoms.
"We had some bad luck with Mat Hayman who got sick last night and Eisel who was sick the night before. We don't know what it is but it was for one day and then they started to get better," Knaven said.
When the peloton swung onto the Kwaremont for the final and decisive time, Sky was running out of options. With Thomas trailing, Boasson Hagen bravely attempted to follow Cancellara and Sagan as they pushed clear. The Norwegian had raced the perfect race until that point, staying near to the front but out of trouble, and he initially looked comfortable as Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel hung onto his coattails.
When Cancellara and Sagan turned the screw, Boasson Hagen had no response with Chavanel forced to come around the outside and lead the fruitless chase.
"Edvald is going really well but maybe we have to admit that at the moment Cancellara and Sagan are better. Our captains, Thomas and Edvald, are in good shape but when you're in the wheel and they drop you, they're better."
Sky's performance perhaps merited a slightly better result than 17th and the team will be hoping for a far more impressive return for next Sunday's Paris-Roubaix. Cancellara will return to the pavé as the undoubted favourite to seal his second double but with Sagan now holding back for Amstel and Tom Boonen out of the picture Sky still has something to fight for, if not their pride.
"There are more favourites for Sunday and we're not going to worry. We believe in the team and they believe in themselves and Sunday is a totally different race. We'll have good morale for Sunday again," Knaven said.
As for Sky's Tenerife experiment, Thomas explained before the race that it may take time for he and his teammates to find a winning formulae, pointing to the trajectory of success the team's Grand Tour unit has enjoyed in the last 18 months.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it [success] didn't happen straight away either. I think if we podiumed, it would still be a good result. If you look at the Grand Tours, they're obviously flying now and they're doing really well. But we started in 2010 and it took us two years for that to get going. We might win on Sunday but it will take a year or two because even with this training, we've only started being specific for the last three months. It's the first time I've ever concentrated on the road specifically as well."
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