After having failed to leave their own mark in the Flemish classics for several consecutive seasons, emphasized by their last year’s ill-fated spring campaign, Team Sky finally seemed to put the everything together for cobbled races this time around as they won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with Ian Stannard and posted two other podium results in Milano-Sanremo and E3 Harelbeke, courtesy of Ben Swift and Geraint Thomas respectively. However, despite their plans to use the strength in numbers to excel on hellingen, Stannard’s crash saw Thomas emerging as a sole leader for cobbled monuments and the Welshmen plans to go on attack in order to upset the main favorites.
Echoing the words of the main favorite to take the spoils in Ronde van Vlaanderen today, Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Thomas emphasized the importance of experience on the hilly Flemish parcours and admitted that it takes several years go get well familiarized with a intricate topography.
“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.”
Team Sky didn’t hide that their tactics for Flemish classics was all about taking advantage of their strength in numbers, with in-form Thomas and Stannard as co-captains and Edvald Boasson Hagen left as a third card to play in case of a bunch sprint. Stannard’s withdrawal significantly weakened Sky’s roster for cobbled monuments, but the Welshmen still believes that their initial tactics are applicable, even though the situation may actually play in his own favour in relation to more personal ambitions.
“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.”
“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.”
Thomas very thoughtfully acknowledges that the only chance to cause a major upset on a hilly Flemish course on Sunday is by anticipating moves of main favorites - defined by him as Cancellara, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale), and going on the offensive before they’ll leave the whole opposition behind.
“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.”
Even though Bradley Wiggins didn’t race on cobbles this season as he has been calmly preparing himself for his spring’s biggest objective, the Paris-Roubaix, and was expected to join Team Sky classics unit only for one even before the Hell of the North. Stannard’s withdrawal saw the former Tour de France champion a late addition to Sky’s roster, but Thomas believes that the Briton will have the legs to support him in Ronde van Vlaanderen today.
“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.”
The Welshmen also shared the opinion about an exceptional number of riders being just a little step behind Cancellara, Boonen and sagan, able to contend for a glory in this year’s Ronde and Paris-Roubaix.
“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.”
Pleased with his performance in the E3 Harelbeke last week, Thomas acknowledged that on obvious confidence boost can’t change the fact that things can pan out entirely differently on a much more demanding course today.
“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,” Thomas concluded.
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