Servais Knaven knows better than most that when riders from Patrick Lefevere's team outnumber the rest in the finale of a cobbled classic, only one outcome is likely. After all, he was one of four Domo riders in the winning break of seven at Paris-Roubaix in 2001, and he duly slipped away to claim victory and lead a sweep of the podium for the Belgian squad.
On Saturday at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, then, Knaven must have had a sinking feeling as he sat in the Team Sky team car behind the decisive break and watched his man Ian Stannard outnumbered by three of Lefevere’s Etixx-QuickStep charges. One imagines that the Dutchman was able to offer plenty of insight but precious little consolation when Stannard dropped back to weigh up his prospects.
Yet remarkably, through a bizarre combination of spectacular Etixx missteps and sound decision-making from Stannard, the Englishman upset the odds and saw off Stijn Vandenbergh, Tom Boonen and finally Niki Terpstra to win the Omloop for the second successive year.
Knaven's glee on reaching the Team Sky bus in Ghent's Sint-Pietersplein was apparent, though he insisted that he was never resigned to the idea that Stannard was simply racing to finish on the podium behind Etixx-QuickStep’s designated winner.
"I said to him that if the chasers were coming closer then he would have to start working, otherwise what else can he do but sit in the wheel? It's a bike race and you want to win," Knaven said. "I said if he had the legs then he could try to attack in the crosswind. He was a bit worried that if he did that he might lose everything but then they started attacking themselves. The only thing he could do was close the gaps and then he tried himself because sometimes the best defence is to attack."
As befits a man who spent seven years as a rider on Lefevere's team, Knaven was diplomatic when asked if he felt Etixx-QuickStep had made errors in the finale – "I'm not judging other riders from other teams," he said – though he admitted that he did not expect Boonen to be the first attacker on the run-in.
"I was surprised he was the first one but he was probably the freshest from the QuickStep guys because he was in the wheels for seven or eight kilometres before that so he could recover a bit," Knaven said. "I was expecting that Boonen would be on Ian's wheel so he could join him if he attacked. But even in that position, there were so many options and the next time it will be different again."
Such is the terrible beauty of one-day racing, where ifs and buts add up to countless permutations. When Sky repeatedly fell short in the Classics in years past, all while performing dominantly in stage races, there was a school of thought that the team's obsession with numbers and order did not transfer across to the seemingly more intuitive realm of the cobbles.
Yet Sky successfully played the percentages on Saturday while riding to a script of sorts. Bernhard Eisel and Bradley Wiggins were prominent in leading the bunch through the middle section of the race through the Flemish Ardennes, before the endgame began in earnest on the slopes of the Taaienberg, where the leaders Stannard and Luke Rowe were present and correct.
Rowe also sallied clear alone on the Wolvenberg in what was a pre-meditated move. "We always said that when the race slows down and everyone looks at each other, then he should try something," Knaven said of Rowe's solo effort. "It was in the final with less than 40k to go and the only bad luck he had was that nobody came with him."
Shortly afterwards, Stannard was in position to latch onto the winning move on the cobbles at Haaghoek. From there, of course, the day seemed set to bend inexorably to Etixx-QuickStep’s will, but the race took on a logic of its own in the frenetic final five kilometres and – somehow – Stannard emerged the winner.
On Sunday, he returns to the fray for Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, where, in theory at least, Elia Viviani is perhaps Sky's most likely chance of success. "We’ll see," Knaven said. "It's another race and there will be teams who go for revenge or a second chance, like Lotto-Jumbo, QuickStep and some other teams. And there will also be teams who go for the sprint. We can go for both, but we’ll see how the guys recover from today because it’s been a hard day."