Sky directeur sportif Servais Knaven hopes that Ian Stannard’s victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday can serve as something of a template for the team throughout the classics campaign.
Edvald Boasson Hagen, who finished the day in third place, laid the groundwork for Stannard’s win by bridging across to a dangerous move from Niki Terpstra and Lars Boom in the finale, while Luke Rowe was also active in the front group on the run-in to Ghent.
“We had more riders in the final and we could play more with tactics, and that’s how you win a bike race. You cannot do it on your own. You have to do it together,” Knaven told Cyclingnews in Ghent. “For me that was the most perfect, perfect teamwork I’ve seen from us in these races in a long time. Always when there was a counter-attack, we had someone there.
“This is how we can win bike races. We don’t have Tom Boonen or a rider like Sagan or Cancellara, but we have really strong riders and together they are as strong or maybe stronger than one single rider.”
The trick now, of course, is to repeat Saturday’s performance in April, and winning the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix is no straightforward task in the era of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. In the eighteen editions of those races since 2005, all but three have been won by Boonen, Cancellara or their teammates - the 2007 and 2011 Tours of Flanders (Alessandro Ballan and Nick Nuyens, respectively) and the 2011 Paris-Roubaix (Johan Vansummeren).
Last year, Sky’s approach to that conundrum included withholding their classics unit from Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico in favour of a collective training camp on Mount Teide. Although that idea has been shelved this time around, Knaven said that it was not the root cause of their meagre return in one-day races in 2013.
“It was not about preparation last year, the preparation was good. Everybody agrees on that,” Knaven said. “Everybody was in top shape in San Remo but then they all got sick and because of that we didn’t have the results. It’s not that we were like blown away, but we were missing that last bit.
“For me that’s why we didn’t get the results last year. It was not that the preparation was not good. But riders love to race and especially these races, so they don’t want to skip one single race of the Flemish ones.”
Boasson Hagen’s third place finish at Omloop was his best result in a cobbled classic since he won Gent-Wevelgem with HTC-Highroad in 2009, but Knaven dismissed the idea that he had been punching below his weight in the classics since joining Sky.
“Edvald is on a really good level, but last year he was good as well and he had some bad luck,” he said. “Last year, Flanders came down to the last time up Kwaremont and Eddy was just a little bit short of Sagan and Cancellara but he was not far behind them either. Now I really hope they come closer to the big guns. Today was really good but now we have to build to Waregem, Harelbeke and Wevelgem and the others.”
Speaking to Cyclingnews at the recent Tour of Qatar, Ian Stannard had wondered whether Sky’s deployment of multiple leaders in the classics last year had been counter-productive. At Omloop, the team entered the race with a defined hierarchy, with Stannard designated as the leader beforehand.
“Ian was the captain today for the first time in these races. He really is growing. He did a great job as a leader and finished it off with a superb sprint against Van Avermaet, who is normally much faster,” Knaven said. “Ian is also getting older and wiser, so that was really good what he did.”