Luke Rowe was determined to leave his mark on Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday. With teammate and two-time winner Ian Stannard plotting an alternate route to the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the Welshman had been “super focused” and “committed” for some time ahead of a rare leadership role at the first hit-out of the Classics season.
“I have to make the most of this,” the Team Sky rider told Cyclingnews on the start line just a few moments before rolling out of Gent. “With him not being here, it opens the door up a bit. You don’t get many opportunities in this team to have a chance, to be leader, so when you do you've got to take them.
The Welshman was true to his word and ignited the race on the slopes of the Taaienberg, forming what turned out to be the race-winning selection. Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan, and Tiesj Benoot were there for company for the 57 kilometres back to Gent – along with breakaway clinger-on Alexis Gougeard – and Rowe held his own but lacked the legs for the slightly-uphill sprint.
“Mixed emotions,” was his assessment as he spoke to Cyclingnews while warming down. “I wanted to put myself out there and put myself in the race, and I did that, but then to finish fourth out of a group of five, it’s slightly disappointing.
“I was fairly confident I’d get a podium, to be honest, going into the sprint, but as you could see I got out the saddle and my legs just locked up completely. I think it was the same for a few guys – you’d bet on Sagan in that position – that’s what its like at the end of a long hard race.”
Rowe’s determination to make a statement here had him doing extra recon rides and watching videos of past editions of the race. In the course of his research, he no doubt came across footage of a certain Tom Boonen attacking on the Taaienberg – the cobbled climb famed for being the Belgian’s favourite launchpad.
In fact, Rowe had a first-hand view last year as he was the man giving chase, fighting to prevent the gap from becoming too big, and he clearly took that leaf out of the Etixx-QuickStep rider’s playbook.
“Boonenberg,” Rowe joked, giving it its adopted moniker. “He’s done it umpteen times.
“If you’re anywhere near the front on the Taaienberg, it’s the only thing to do. You see it time and time again, that’s the most clinical part of the race. Even if you ride tempo up there it causes carnage, but I went full gas up there.”
Once away, the group stayed together for the remained of the race and collaborated well to keep the Etixx-QuickStep-led peloton a minute at bay, but Rowe concedes that eventual winner Van Avermaet “was noticeably strongest” from the turns he was doing.
“We knew we had to pull hard. When you go in front like that there’s no point messing around. We all committed. Inside the final 10km everyone started soft tapping a bit and looking after their legs and that’s the only reason the gap came down. Then we put the foot back on the gas when we realized."
A big confidence boost
Rowe, 25, has been growing in stature in the Classics over the last couple of seasons, with his eighth place at last year’s Paris-Roubaix a true indication of his promise.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is not the be all and end all for most – in fact no winner has ever gone on to triumph at Flanders a few weeks later – but it can often set the tone for the bigger challenges to come. Rowe, despite missing out on a first Classics podium, was able to take a great deal of confidence for the rest of the spring.
“I’ve got a lot of positives to take from that – I’ve got to be pretty happy with the day,” he said.
“Sagan Van Avermaet, Benoot: they’re three of the best, at the top of their game. Throw those three names into any Classic and any one of them could win. To be mixing it with those boys is definitely a big confidence boost.
“I would have been nice to get on the podium. Obviously it’s something I’ve never done. I’m a bit gutted about that – like I said, mixed emotions – but fourth place, I’ll take it. It’s a good start, and a good platform to move from.”