The penny dropped for Geraint Thomas midway during his reconnaissance of the Tour of Flanders route on Thursday. After years of struggling to see the wood for the trees in the Flemish Ardennes, the Welshman knew exactly where he was – the intricate geography of De Ronde had revealed itself.
“I think it takes a few years because you’ve so many lefts and rights – a climb here, a descent there,” Thomas said in Kortijk on Friday. “When [Mat] Hayman was in the team he was always saying things like ‘We do this descent in E3 but we go up that now, or we take that left here instead of that right like in Nieuwsblad, and you’d be like, ‘How the hell do you know that?’ But the more you race here, the more you get dialled into it and you know where you are.”
Third place at E3 Harelbeke last week highlighted Thomas’ form, and he hopes that his accumulated experience can help him still further as he up for his fourth tilt at the Tour of Flanders. This time out, Thomas starts the outright leader of Team Sky, a status that had been conferred upon him even before Ian Stannard was forced out by injury. He acknowledged that the hierarchy and specific roles within Sky’s classics unit have been more clearly defined than they had been twelve months ago.
“That’s probably one of the biggest changes, especially in Roubaix, where we had five guys all sort of there,” Thomas said. “Of course, it can all change pretty quickly here but at the same time I think it’s good to go in with that one plan and do as best you can with that.”
The plan, at least for Thomas, is to go on the offensive and, where possible, look to get up the road before the favourites – Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan – wind up to land their heavy blows in the finale. Anticipating that trio is a mantra that will doubtless be drilled into a number of teams at briefings on Saturday evening, and Thomas expects a more open race than the previous two editions of the Tour of Flanders.
“I can see it [the winning move] being a bit earlier, but so much can happen. We could sit for two hours talking about the different scenarios but I think it will just be aggressive sort of racing. A lot could go down,” Thomas said. “I’m expecting from the second time on the Kwaremont that it will be pretty full on.”
Thomas was non-committal about where precisely he might look to get up the road, but pointed to Sky’s aggressive showing at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where Stannard took the win [and where, incidentally, he did not ride], as something of a template. “I think [it’s important to have] strength in numbers like QuickStep,” he said. “Like the boys rode at Nieuwsblad, we’ll always try to be represented in front and play the numbers game. I think that’s an advantage for us to try and use that.”
Bradley Wiggins was drafted in to replace the injured Stannard in Sky’s Tour of Flanders line-up but he missed the team’s reconnaissance and only arrives in Kortrijk on Friday evening. Given that Wiggins has been quietly building towards Paris-Roubaix, Thomas is confident that he has the legs to contribute on Sunday but he admitted that the Tour de France winner’s lack of experience on the course might play against him.
“Ian was a key guy for us but Brad’s just as strong. Whether positioning-wise, he can be there when it matters, I guess we’ll just wait and see,” Thomas said. “I haven’t spoke to Brad yet because he gets in later. He’s obviously a strong bike rider and hopefully he’ll do a good job as well.”
Thomas’ principal foil on Sunday will be Edvald Boasson Hagen – “if it comes back together, he’s one of the names you’d put down to be there in a sprint,” he said – and he believes that there is a long list of riders at a similar level, just one rung below Cancellara, Boonen and Sagan. “You’ve got those three but then there’s quite a big group of people underneath, and I think they all believe they can win.”
Thomas showcased his form by riding to a confident third place at E3 Harelbeke, and he showed no signs of an inferiority complex vis à vis the big three when he briefly distanced Peter Sagan on the Oude Kwaremont. “I didn’t feel great all day to be honest, but then the last time on the Kwaremont I went away and felt strong, so I could definitely take confidence from that,” he said. “But obviously Flanders is a different ball game – there’s an extra 50k, so it’s that much harder a race.”
Often maligned in the past, Sky’s classics unit has shown signs of progress this season, demonstrated by results at Het Nieuwsblad, Milan-San Remo and E3 Harelbeke. Thomas is aware, of course, that their classics campaign will be judged on Flanders and Roubaix, but he made light of the oft-repeated criticisms.
“I don’t really read websites and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “There was a lot of talk last year that it was a failure but unless you’ve got Fabian or Boonen in the team it’s hard to win one of those races anyway. I think we’ve always been in the mix. It’s just that last little step really.”