Diabolical. You don't often hear riders use such strong language when assessing their own performances, but Luke Rowe is under no illusions as to how seriously Team Sky have underperformed at the cobbled classics so far this spring, with a big turnaround needed at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday and Paris-Roubaix a week later.
Rowe finished fifth at Flanders last year, while Ian Stannard made the podium at Paris-Roubaix but, despite a podium finish from the former at the 'opening weekend' in February, the duo have had little impact on affairs since the start of the so-called Flemish cycling week.
Rowe was 15th at E3-Harelbeke last Friday but missed the key splits, while Stannard's hopes ended with a puncture. At Gent-Wevelgem on the Sunday, Rowe had a jours sans and abandoned while Stannard got boxed in ahead of the Kemmelberg.
"Last weekend was diabolical. We've got to do better," said Rowe, sitting down with a small group of journalists at Team Sky's hotel in Kortrijk on Friday evening.
"There are no excuses really. We're one of the top teams, we have all the support, and to perform like that on one of the biggest weekends of year wasn't good enough really, so we've got to up our game."
Rowe and Stannard, along with their directeur sportif, Servais Knaven, both admitted to being caught slightly off guard by the way those two races played out, with the action kicking off earlier than expected. At E3, the first decisive selection came when Philippe Gilbert attacked just after the Taaienberg, and those who weren't alive to it wouldn't see the front of the race again.
"One thing I learned is that this is probably the most aggressive we've seen the classics," said Rowe.
"Because [Peter] Sagan has shown how strong he is – and Greg [Van Avermaet] – people are trying to isolate them, and when you've got Quick-Step with such strength in depth, people are trying to race earlier and trying to get ahead. These classics are the most aggressive I've ever done, and that's the big thing to take into account for next two races."
There may be an acute awareness of underperformance in the Sky camp so far, but there's no diminishment in confidence. Rowe spoke of the steady progress he and his co-leader Stannard – twice a winner of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – have made over the past few years, and saw no reason why last weekend's showings would preclude success at the big two.
"It's pointless sitting here now looking at negatives," said the Welshman. "As s a rider you have to look back and take the positives – and there are a lot of positives. The ways the team is riding, and the way the young guys like [Owain] Doull and [Jon] Dibben are stepping up is fantastic.
"But the most important thing is how the condition is, and despite results not being there, myself and Yogi [Stannard], and the team as a whole, are riding strong. You make your own luck but if it can go our way a bit then we can deliver a result.
"You can't go into these races with your head down; you have to have your chest out and your head held high. We're optimistic and excited really for the next two weekends."
Shortly after Rowe and Stannard had departed, Knaven came down to talk tactics, offering his take on how De Ronde might unfold, and how his riders fit into that picture.
"I expect it will start early," he said. "I don't know where, and if I knew I wouldn't say, but I have an idea," he said, adding that early hostilities would suit Sky.
"There are teams who want to make the race hard, and that's good for us. We like that kind of racing, we showed that last year at Roubaix last year, we had numbers when it started early. When the races start early and not like at the specific moments like the Kwaremont or Paterberg, where it's really hard to follow the strongest guys, then it can be a different story."
Rowe struck a similar note, explaining that, when you have a couple of guys who are clearly stronger than everyone else, there's no point waiting for them to assert their dominance in the finale.
"People are attacking earlier and earlier so do you counter attack that by attacking even earlier again?" he asked. "It's about finding the right place and the right time and the right moment. If you go toe-to-toe with Greg or Sagan on the Paterberg I think you're going to come off second best, so you've got to try and spice it up a little bit.
"If a full team gets together on the bottom of the Muur it can be an important moment in the race. It could be that many guys come back, but it could also be that you never see them again, if you get the right people there. I think the Muur can be a key point. Everyone said ‘ah it's too far from the finish, nothing will happen', but with this style of racing it could be a nice one, it would be nice eh, full gas on the Muur, small groups, then 100km full gas.
Will we see Sky lighting it up on the holy slopes of Kapelmuur? It depends on the race situation, but Knaven did seem to issue a call-to-arms of sorts for other teams to join the cause. "It's a risk for people to do, because you can start early and lose everything if you spend too much energy, so you never know if it's going to work. But it's going to work if more teams have the same idea," he said. "If you're the only team with that tactic then it will never work."
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