Low-key build-up to Tour of Flanders for Team Sky

With the much anticipated Boonen-Cancellara duel occupying hearts and minds during Belgian cycling’s Holy Week, Team Sky has been one of a number of teams enjoying a quiet build-up to the Tour of Flanders. But with Bernhard Eisel, Juan Antonio Flecha and Edvald Boasson Hagen in its ranks, the British squad boasts a number of riders with the capacity to show themselves on the cobbles.

Flecha was in fine form in February, finishing third at the Tour of Qatar and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but a broken hand sustained in training has kept him away from competitive action since. He makes his return on Sunday, and he admitted that he did not know what kind of performance he would be able to deliver in a race where he finished on the podium in 2008.

“I just want to do the best I can,” Flecha said on Friday evening. “Of course I haven’t been racing for a while but there’s nothing more that I can do to try to be 100% for Sunday. That’s the only thing that I expect from myself.”

A small pocket of journalists attended a rather sombre Sky press conference in Kortrijk, where Flecha was reticent to give anything away about the set-up of his team for De Ronde. “The tactics will be whatever the plan is,” he said. “I can’t tell you yet, because we haven’t done any team meeting yet, but whatever the DS asks me I will do.”

Flecha was a little more expansive when asked about how much the team would miss Geraint Thomas in Flanders. The Welshman was one of the revelations of last year’s cobbled campaign, but he has opted to focus his attentions on the track world championships this spring, as he builds towards the London 2012 Olympics.

“He’s a great rider and he showed already last year that he can do really good on these races,” Flecha said. “Of course we miss him, but the Olympics is one time every four years. Having the Olympics in your own country is something unique. The classics are every year, so he can do really well here many times.”

One young rider who is on the Sky team for Flanders is the quietly-spoken Edvald Boasson Hagen. The multi-talented Norwegian took 5th place in the sprint at Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday, but he has yet to make a significant impact at De Ronde. “I’m not really struggling with any pressure. I just put on my own pressure. There’s always some expectation from the press, but I don’t think a lot about that,” he said.

Boasson Hagen was typically concise when assessing the new route of the Tour of Flanders, which sees the Muur and Bosberg finale removed in favour of three ascensions of the Kwaremont and Paterbeg. “It’s really hard and up and down and the new climbs are going to make changes. It’s the same for everyone,” he said. “We all have to do it and get over the climbs. The Kwaremont and Paterberg is the main patch where it’s going to be really hard.”

For his part, directeur sportif Steven De Jongh anticipated that the selection would be gradual one as the difficulty of the new circuit takes its toll, particularly if weather conditions turn inclement. “There won’t be big groups in the finale, because it’s all hard from there. It’s going to be an elimination race I think, especially when they forecast rain even if maybe in the afternoon it’s going to be dry.”

And Sky’s hopes? “For all the teams, they’re going into the unknown but that also gives some chances. If it’s hard I’m sure you will have strong riders in the finale, but if our guys are good and are with that select group over those climbs, it will be easier for them to get in a good position for the other climbs.”

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