Some teams came away from E3 Harelbeke reassured about their prospects for the Tour of Flanders next weekend, and many more emerged from the dress rehearsal aware that they need to work on their lines ahead of the big day. Team Sky fell into the second category, with highest finisher Luke Rowe’s 15th place a fair reflection of the collective’s muffled impact on the race.
Once Tom Boonen forced the first selection on the Taaienberg with almost seventy kilometres to go, and his Quick-Step teammate Philippe Gilbert sparked the winning move shortly afterwards, Sky were always on the back foot. Rowe was the only Sky rider to finish in the main chasing group, which came home 52 seconds down on winner Greg Van Avermaet (BMC).
"Some guys felt good, other guys didn't feel great, but sometimes it's about split seconds," Sky directeur sportif Servais Knaven told Cyclingnews afterwards. "Sometimes you take decisions without thinking. And if you start thinking sometimes, then you're already too late. But we all learn from it. And the next time we'll try again."
Off the bike, it has been a turbulent spring for Team Sky. The squad is at the centre of a UK Anti-Doping inquiry into British Cycling, and some riders have questioned the tenability of Dave Brailsford's position as manager.
On the bike, however, the squad has enjoyed a hugely successful start to the campaign, winning Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche and Paris-Nice in recent weeks. In that context, directeur sportif Servais Knaven was loath to label their E3 Harelbeke showing as a disappointment.
"Disappointed is a big word," Knaven said. "You always hope to have riders in the front. On the Taaienberg, we were still good. We had four guys up there. Then on the Boigneberg they went on shifts and we had [Gianni] Moscon in between the groups, but he was not good enough to get across and he blew. From that moment, we were always chasing behind and not really in the race. We knew from the Taaienberg, the big guns could try already from there. It's mostly about having the legs and some guys are that little bit better, what can you say."
After the select group featuring Gilbert, eventual winner Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) went up the road, there was precious little cohesion in the splintered peloton behind, with Quick-Step policing affairs and world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) bereft of support. John Degenkolb's Trek-Segafredo squad made occasional efforts at forming a chase, but it was a fragmented effort.
"You cannot chase as a team, you can ride maybe three kilometres and then you hit the next climb so you cannot organise a lot. If you chase full gas on the flatter section as a team, then you lose the whole team on the climb, so it's always difficult in these races," Knaven said.
"We're seeing more and more that the strong guys are going early, and it's really hard to catch them back. We've seen that more and more in the last couple of years. The big guns aren't waiting any more until 20k to go. So it's really exciting bike racing for the viewers, but it's really hard for everybody because they don't save energy anymore."
One mitigating factor for Sky was the untimely puncture suffered by Ian Stannard just ahead of the Taaienberg. The Briton reached the finish 2:16 down with teammates Lukasz Wisniowski and Gianni Moscon.
"Ian had a bad moment puncture, on the smaller roads coming up to the Taaienberg," Knaven said. "You know you're never going to make it the front again when it happens there. When you're not in a good position on the Taaienberg, it's very hard. He could make it to first chasing group but that was it."
Sky were without the 2016 E3 Harelbeke winner Michal Kwiatkowski, and despite the sparkling form that has brought him Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo victory this month, the Pole will not line out in any cobbled Classics this year as he builds towards the Ardennes. Knaven dismissed the idea that Kwiatkowski could be parachuted into the team for the Tour of Flanders next weekend.
"No. We never spoke about it," he said. "We make plans in the winter and we stick to the plans. It's about Kwiatkowski. This is his plan. We spoke all together about it and we're not going to change that."