After missing Gent-Wevelgem through illness at the weekend, Ian Stannard (Team Sky) returned to competitive duty at the Three Days of De Panne on Tuesday as he continues his preparation for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Stannard, buoyed by his third place in E3 Harelbeke on Friday, travelled with Team Sky to Deinze for the start of Gent-Wevelgem, but eventually opted not to start due to the onset of a cold.
"It was more of a precaution, really," Stannard told Cyclingnews in De Panne on Tuesday. "It was a cold day and there was going to be hard racing. I felt it coming on, and if I'd raced there I probably won't be racing here. It was a precaution, but it was a tough decision to miss it."
Stannard came home three minutes down on Tuesday's opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne as he felt his way back into action. He will be expected to assume the mantle of leadership for Sky at Paris-Roubaix – "It's more the one that suits me, I guess" – and he will likely set out from Bruges on Sunday in a supporting role at the Tour of Flanders, where E3 Harelbeke winner Michal Kwiatkowski and Paris-Nice winner Geraint Thomas will top the bill for the British team.
"Kwiatkowski showed the other day what he can do on these climbs, which is awesome and gives us more strength. Geraint is coming in too and he really wants to go for Flanders, so we're going to have a good strong team to support those guys," he said. "Luke [Rowe] was up there on Sunday as well, so that bodes well for this weekend."
In years past, Team Sky's Classics unit was often criticised for failing to add up the sum of its parts, with its low key showings on the first two Sundays in April placed in sharp contrast with the team's remarkable run of stage racing success.
The perception has shifted gradually over the past two seasons, not least thanks to Stannard's own back-to-back victories at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Thomas' E3 Harelbeke triumph of a year ago. Success in a Monument has remained elusive but there have been marked signs of improvement from the nadir of 2012 or 2013.
"We're all grown up and we're maturing. We've been learning the races a bit more every year and just slowly improving," Stannard said. "I guess every year you approach it slightly differently, too. You see what works and what doesn't work and you keep refining it every year. That's starting to come to fruition a little bit and now we're performing."
Sky's collective strength in Belgium to date contrasts with the troubled Spring that Etixx-QuickStep has endured on the cobbles thus far. But as Stannard and Team Sky well know, the success or failure of a Classics campaign is determined by how the team fares at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
"They haven't been up there and they've said it in the press. But I'd expect them to come out in the next two weeks and put up a big fight," Stannard said. "They're are the ones that count. If they win one of those ones, the rest of it doesn't matter, does it?"
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