GENT, Belgium (VN) — Team Sky has emerged as the dominant squad in grand tours, winning back-to-back yellow jerseys at the Tour de France with two separate riders, a feat unmatched in 30 years.
The classics have proved a more difficult nut to crack. Despite a concerted effort with a solid block of riders, the team remains on the second tier of squads, behind powerhouses Trek Factory Racing, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, and Belkin.
Sky is hoping to turn that around over the next two weekends. They all know that all it takes is one big ride, and they’re betting on Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen to deliver the elusive victory.
“There was a lot of talk last year that [the classics were] a big failure … but unless you’ve got Fabian [Cancellara] or [Tom] Boonen on the team, it’s hard to win one of those races anyway,” Thomas told journalists Friday. “We’ve always been in the mix. It’s just that last little step, really.”
Thomas and Boasson Hagen will have a chance to take that step when they line up as outsiders for Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), on the second line behind five-star favorites like Boonen (Omega Pharma), Cancellara (Trek), and Peter Sagan (Cannondale). Bradley Wiggins is also slated to start, replacing Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Ian Stannard, who is out with a back injury.
The outsider tag is just fine, because it means Sky won’t have to carry the weight of the race, as it is expected to do during the Tour.
“We hope to do well in the big races. We’ve been working toward that for many months,” Boasson Hagen told VeloNews last month. “We are not the big favorites, but we believe we can get some good results. That’s what we are working for.”
Sunday’s squad is a solid one. Thomas, 27, has finally dedicated himself 100 percent to the road. Over the past two Olympics, he’s doubled between the track and the road, but after winning gold in the team pursuit in London in 2012, the Welshman has bet his future on the road. He’s even flirting with the idea of becoming a GC contender, but right now, he’s making one strong run through the classics.
Thomas has been a consistent performer, with 10th in the 2011 Ronde. This year, after overcoming a painful crash at Paris-Nice, he rode onto the podium with third at E3 Harelbeke.
Many thought Boasson Hagen, 26, would become a player in the classics, especially after winning Gent-Wevelgem in 2009. But while he’s always a threat in any hard race, Boasson Hagen has not quite lived up to expectations in the northern classics. His best Ronde in four starts was last year; he finished 17th.
Wiggins remains an enigma for the classics. The 2012 Tour winner was a late addition to the Sky roster for Flanders, and has put a special focus on Paris-Roubaix.
“There’s a few of us with a chance of winning if everything goes right,” Thomas said. “If we play the numbers game, try to stay on the front foot, then that would be a big advantage.”
A victory Sunday would be a huge coup for Team Sky, especially against the heavy favorites Omega Pharma, Trek, and Cannondale.
“We still feel we have underperformed in the spring classics. We haven’t gotten the performances we’d like to see,” Sky head of sport support Tim Kerrison told VeloNews earlier this year. “We’ve got some talented riders who we think are ready to step up in the spring classics. We want to perform better than last year.”
For a relatively new team, Team Sky has done quite well, but its classics results naturally pale in comparison to its stunning successes in the Tour de France. Before this season, Sky was close to the podium in the semi-classics, but nowhere near it in Flanders and Roubaix. And those monuments are the measuring stick for any classics program.
Kerrison said changes to Sky’s approach this year, including a reversal on altitude training for the core classics squad in 2013, are paying dividends.
Team Sky won its first major Belgian one-day race when Stannard out-muscled Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, with Boasson Hagen taking third. Ben Swift dashed to third at Milano-Sanremo two weeks ago, and Thomas was perhaps the strongest rider in Harelbeke to claim third.
That’s one win and three podiums — not bad in the one-day lotteries of the classics.
“I think as a team, we’ve learned a lot,” Thomas said. “We’ve taken that into this year, and been aggressive. We’d like to ride a bit more as a unit.”
Last year, looking for competitive advantages, Team Sky turned convention on its head, and sent its classics-bound riders to train at altitude on Tenerife. The Spanish island has become en vogue among GC riders, with everyone from Chris Froome to Vincenzo Nibali to Alberto Contador all spending time training on the flanks of the 4,000-meter volcano.
Yet the team discovered that the brawnier classics riders didn’t thrive in the thin, mountain air, and left the island more weary than revived.
This year, the classics riders skipped the altitude training and followed a more traditional racing buildup.
“We didn’t go to Tenerife for acclimatization because it’s not required for the classics,” Kerrison said. “The training is different. We didn’t feel we got the training wrong last year, but we’ve refined a few things.”
As Thomas said, the core group of classics riders raced together more in the approach to the Belgian classics. They know their strengths, and are ready to challenge the top favorites.
“You’ve got to be in front of them,” Thomas said. “Flanders is a different ball game. At an extra 50km, it’s a much harder race. I’m just looking forward to getting ‘stuck in’ and just attack when I feel I can or when it feels right.”
With that comment, Thomas sums up the essence of the classics. Unlike grand tours, which are much more about power numbers and controlling the tempo, the classics are about guts and instinct, and having the legs to act on them.