If Team Sky's Geraint Thomas’ solo victory at E3 Harelbeke has installed him as one of the principal favourites for next weekend’s Tour of Flanders, then his third place finish at Gent-Wevelgem has perhaps provided him with a useful primer in coping with the weight of that tag.
Thomas was one of six strongmen left standing at the end of a combative race that was conditioned by fierce winds, and as they tackled the final approach to Wevelgem, the sextet had more or less punched themselves out. Luca Paolini (Katusha), however, had the lucidity to land one final blow with six kilometres remaining, and it proved to the decisive one.
As the Italian forged clear, Thomas imagined Etixx-QuickStep’s Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh might marshal the chase, but he soon realised that his companions were equally keen to place the responsibility on his shoulders. Thomas eventually struck up a working alliance of sorts with Terpstra in the streets of Wevelgem, but it was too little, too late, and he had to settle for third place, 11 seconds down on Paolini.
“There wasn’t really any collaboration, it was hard to get everyone going and people were obviously looking at me a bit after my win on Friday. That’s what it felt like anyway, but I couldn’t go with everything,” Thomas told Cyclingnews after descending from the podium. “When Paolini went it was a good move for him. We all sort of looked at each other.
“I kind of half expected QuickStep to do a bit more but you know they tried jumping themselves. But fortunately I got away in the end and Niki rode with me and I’ve ended up on the podium. I didn’t have much left at the end, especially just for that sprint.”
Any disappointment Thomas felt at missing out on the win was surely tempered by the fact that he had emerged relatively unscathed from a particularly dangerous day of racing, even by Flemish standards. Strong winds had scattered riders like the buffeted souls in the second circle of Dante’s Inferno as the peloton approached the first climb, the Casselberg, after 120 kilometres, with many fallers.
Thomas avoided the carnage there and joined the race-deciding selection with 70 kilometres remaining, only to find himself lying in a roadside trench shortly afterwards, having been simply blown off his bike by the force crosswind. Mercifully, however, the Welshman reported no injuries and rejoined the group almost immediately.
“It was softer than falling on tarmac but the gusts were unbelievable,” Thomas said. “I said afterwards that I need to put some weight on, but I heard Gert Steegmans got blown off the road as well, so maybe it’s not my weight.”
At the height of the storm, the peloton had reached an agreement of sorts and decided upon an informal neutralisation, but Thomas said that the pressing of the Etixx-QuickStep soon brought an end to that truce. “At one point, we neutralised it ourselves really, after there were so many crashes and things but then QuickStep went again and we just raced on,” he said. “If someone wants to go then everyone’s got to race.”
As well as triggering a spate of crashes, the wind also had the effect of making Gent-Wevelgem into a far more selective race than would otherwise have been the case. The bunch was already broken into three groups over the Casselberg, and the race-winning move began to take shape with two hours still to race.
“I thought the selection would form quite early but the strength of the wind was still a surprise,” Thomas said. “We knew it was going to be windy but man it was hard just to stay on the road – as you saw when I was blown off my bike. After 70 kilometres, once we turned left and started heading south, it was just carnage. That wind was so strong and bordering on dangerous, there were riders crashing everywhere and just trying to stay on the road.”
With Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara both ruled out for the remainder of the spring due to injury, this year’s cobbled classics look set to take on a rather different complexion, and Thomas’ displays at Paris-Nice, Harelbeke and again at Gent-Wevelgem, have marked him out as one of the top echelon of favourites for next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, particularly given that the strength of his Sky team.
“I’m really looking forward to it, to getting stuck in and having a good race,” Thomas said. “You know, favourites and stuff, that’s for the bookies. We’ve got a strong team. We’ll commit and hopefully we can get something.”
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