The long-term significance of E3 Harelbeke may not be felt or even understood for some time but there was a sense of unacquainted ground being trod as Geraint Thomas soloed clear to take the biggest one-day win of his career.
Arguably, this was actually Team Sky’s grandest one-day win in their five year history with the Welshman playing a leading role in the break that formed on the Kwaremont before dispatching Zdenek Stybar and Peter Sagan with four kilometres remaining.
For a team that have struggled to match their stage racing dominance in the one-day arena Thomas certainly made victory look effortless. And for the rider who grew up watching the Belgian races on television, and named Nicole Cooke as an inspiration, the relief and joy was only tempered by the very fact that Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are still just around the corner.
“This is massive and it’s one of the biggest races we do here in Belgium. I had some good form coming into this race but like is said before I wanted to race hard from Paris-Nice to Paris-Roubaix and just take my opportunities,” Thomas said in his winner’s press conference as he faced questions from the Belgian journalists more accustomed to greeting Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara in such circumstances.
“This is the biggest win for me in my road career,” he said, instantly bringing nodding approval from his audience.
“I won a stage in the Tour Down Under but it’s this race. If you look at the past winners with Boonen and Cancellera in recent years, there have been some super strong guys. It’s a big, big race so it’s the biggest of my career.”
“Today was a fantastic result and if I’m honest I didn’t really expect it. It was a good group and we all committed and worked well together. I thought that Sagan was bluffing a little bit when he was panting but I tried to attack them and take them by surprise. It couldn’t have worked out any better and I’m over the moon.”
His move with Sagan and Stybar, followed by his late attack was similar to the tactic he played in last year’s Commonwealth Games. However this time, and with no disrespect to Jack Bauer and Scott Thwaites, the opposition and the stakes were a far deal higher.
Third to Sagan last year, Thomas of twelve months ago might have sat on and waited for the sprint – either unsure of himself or unwilling to make a mistake. However this season Thomas has evolved into a more confident and complete athlete and his transformation from track rider is now not just complete but entirely successful. Weight has been shed, experience gained, and with Flanders just over a week away the Welshman finds himself among the upper echelons of favourites. He and his team have those unstoppable allies: momentum and confidence.
When the topic of Flanders favourites was raised Thomas paused, almost stuttered even - caught off guard for the first time throughout the day - before returning to the script.
“Favourites are down to the bookmakers and for me I’ll just treat Flanders like another race. We have a great chance of doing well with a strong team. We’ve been improving over the years and hopefully we can go into Flanders and Roubaix with a few options and ride aggressively.”
“I’m more confident now, in myself, and my ability,” he said when asked where his clinical tactical sense had come from.
“I only really started these races in 2010 and I’ve become stronger over the years and knuckled down. The year has started well and I’ve been on that roll and the confidence has grown. It’s that momentum and the whole team is going well and we thrive off each other and we want to keep that going.”
No Boonen or Cancellara
After John Degenkolb’s victory in Milan-San Remo the inevitable questions over how and when the new generation of Classics stars would cement their place began to surface. By that point Boonen was already at home nursing an injured shoulder but Cancellara remained a potent threat and as one rider told Cyclingnews on Thursday evening, “even a bad Cancellara is a good Cancellara.”
However after the Trek rider crashed out of the Classics the landscape irrevocably changed.
When the peloton lines up for Flanders there could be only three former Flanders and Roubaix winners on the start line, and few would argue that Stijn Devolder’s and Johan Vansummeren’s best days are not behind them.
“I think it just opens the door for the other guys, mentally more than anything. Everyone has a chance now [Cancellara and Boonen] are not around. They’re legends, so everyone will think they can win now. BMC are strong, QuickStep are strong, and ourselves. I think everyone will think they have a chance now.”