Sky's Classics campaign continued where it left off at Dwars Door Vlaanderen with the British team providing strength in numbers but again missing out on the top step of the podium at E3 Harelbeke. Geraint Thomas was their best finisher, crossing the line in fourth behind a podium led by Fabian Cancellara and rounded off with Peter Sagan and Daniel Oss.
Unlike Dwars Door Vlaanderen where Sky took the race by the scruff of the neck, they played a more cautious hand in E3. With the calibre of competition higher and with no clear leader, their tactic of loading the front group with strength in numbers appeared to pay off when Mathew Hayman, Thomas and Edvald Boassan Hagen made the front group inside the final 50 kilometres.
Thomas was the last of the trio to latch onto the leaders having been poorly positioned on the Taaienberg.
"I lost a lot of ground just before," he told Cyclingnews at the finish.
"I got knocked off the road a bit so had to unclip and ended up right near the back of the group. I tried not to panic and just sat there and moved up through the gutter."
"Fortunately Cannondale missed a move so they chased and I got across with them."
Any numerical advantage the team had ended on the Kwaremont when Cancellara launched his race-winning move. Behind the Radioshack rider the field exploded with Tom Boonen and the other pre-race favourites struggling to keep any momentum. Boassan Hagen and Hayman found themselves in trouble with only Thomas able to join the first chase group that included Sylvain Chavanel (Omega-Pharma QuickStep), Daniel Oss (Team BMC), Peter Sagan (Canndonale) and Sebastian Langeveld (ORICA GreenEdge).
While Cancellara quickly established a healthy lead, Thomas sat on the back of the chase group as Boasson Hagen and Hayman and Ian Stannard were all within 20 seconds.
"I was taking a bit of stick off the other guys but with Edvald just behind, I sat on but once we knew they weren't coming, I worked with the guys but by then Fabian already had a minute."
"Then in the sprint I just messed it up. I thought I had lot longer than I actually did."
"I've got good form and now I'm just looking forward to next week. The legs are good I think it's just about being confident and using the boys well."
While fourth place is by no means a failure for the team Rod Ellingworth, Sky's race coach, told Cyclingnews that the team had room for improvement ahead of Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders.
"It wasn't everything, but it was okay. We had strength in numbers but you wouldn't expect anything less," he told Cyclingnews at the finish.
"I think the guys knows they could do a little bit better. I just think with regards to being a unit out on the road and deciding who they're going to ride for in the finals. It's a hard day here though. If you give Cancellara 20 meters, you're in trouble."
Sky's policy of strength in numbers stems from the fact that they lack a game changer in the form of a Cancellara or Sagan, while the cream of the crop they do posses provide parity in talent and, bar Hayman and Eisel, experience, too.
The policy doesn't look like changing any time soon though. When asked if the team should race for one leader, Thomas said, "I don't think so. We might have our favourite but it's always good to have numbers and have options, especially in races like this if you can get riders up the road. I'm happy just to get stuck in and see how it goes."