On paper, Team Sky started the Tour of Guangxi with one of the strongest squads. On stage four of the race, to NongLa Scenic Spot, sports director Brett Lancaster is aiming to prove it on the road, too, with Wout Poels the ace in the deck for the British team.
With the opening three stages of the race all won in dominant fashion by Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), there has been little racing insight into who is most likely to shine on the queen stage of the race. Poels and Mikel Landa have both been key domestiques during Chris Froome's last three Tour de France wins but are potential winners in their own right.
Although Landa is lacking his form of July this late into the season, Lancaster told Cyclingnews ahead of the queen stage that Poels is raring to go and will lead the team.
"Wout is in excellent form. I won't give too much away but I think he has done some really good numbers just last week before coming here," the Australian sports director explained.
"Obviously he had his knee injuries earlier in the year so he hasn't done a lot of race days. The form you saw the last week of the Vuelta, he's come out of there really strong. He'll be our main man and Landa will try and get up there as well. We'll try and give him a hand. We'll see what happens but it will all be decided tomorrow I think. We still don't know exactly how hard this climb is."
The team will have to do without climber Beñat Intxausti after the Spaniard withdrew on stage 2. The 31-year-old was making his first stage race appearance since the 2016 Tour de Pologne and just his second race of 2017 for Sky as he continues to battle mononucleosis.
"Losing Beñat, we always knew that was going to happen anyway. I thought we'd get another day or two out him and that's what he expected too. It was a really fast start yesterday and he just suffered a bit too much," Lancaster said of the Spaniard, who has inked a one-year extension with Sky.
The absence of Intxausti leaves just Landa for the climb but Sky still has several strong riders for the flat phases to deaden the legs of its rivals before Landa and then Poels take over.
Like the other 17 teams in the Tour of Guangxi peloton, Sky and Lancaster will be tackling the climb to the NongLa Scenic Spot with no prior knowledge of the ascent. Stage profiles and videos will provide the most pre-race insight into the finale but, as Lancaster explained, Sky has another trick up its sleeve to assist its assault in the finale.
"We know from what we've seen from the road so far that it will be good road quality. That is one thing. We have a guy that we work with who maps out things for us," he said. "He's mapped out a graph, it took him a long time to do it, so I have a pretty good idea what the climb is going to be like. More detailed than what we have in the race profile. It does kick up quite a bit at the end. We don't have a climbing team here as such, but with Landa, we can try and push the pace at the bottom and make it as hard as possible.
"At this time of the year, you don't know who is going well and who is not. Obviously [Julian] Alaphilippe is going to be going pretty well. The climb probably suites him the most out of anyone. Wout is confident and he'll go out there and give it a go."
The Tour of Guangxi is the final race of Landa's Sky career, with the 27-year-old making the move to Movistar in the off-season.
At 78 race days, the 2017 season is already the longest of Landa's career and, as a result, he arrived in China in less than ideal condition. Despite feeling the fatigue of the year, Landa told Cyclingnews he is nevertheless keen to help the team's bid for victory and go out a winner with Sky.
"My feeling is not so good. We are in the final race of the season. I am a little bit tired but I have time to enjoy as much as I can," Landa said. "I am not in good shape so I will try to help Wout as much as possible."
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