Nothing sums up the place the Tour of Flanders occupies in Geraint Thomas' affections quite like the wistful comment he made on sitting down with reporters on the Friday before last year's Paris-Roubaix: "It's kind of a shame we can't do the Tour of Flanders again this weekend," he said, casually relegating the Queen of the Classics to the status of a consolation prize.
After defending a place in the top five overall deep into the third week of last year's Tour de France, it was inevitable that Thomas, on the cusp of his 30th birthday, would finally be persuaded by Team Sky to devote himself to stage racing on a more permanent basis.
The switch in emphasis has already yielded overall victory at the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice this year, but even though Thomas is apparently being groomed for a metamorphosis of the kind enjoyed by Bradley Wiggins at around the same age, the Tour of Flanders, it seems, was a non-negotiable part of his 2016 race programme.
"He personally wants to do it, and I've always said that at the end of the day you've got to listen to what the lads want to do, and let them follow their dreams and give them some opportunities in other things," Team Sky's head of performance Rod Ellingworth told Cyclingnews.
After an early-season campaign on stage racing duty, Thomas links up with Team Sky's Classics unit for the first time at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, eschewing the conventional wisdom that a contender for victory in the Ronde will have spent the preceding weeks dutifully familiarising himself once again with the cobbles and hills of the Flemish Ardennes. His last race was the Volta a Catalunya, which he abandoned after four stages as he turned his attentions to Flanders.
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