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Michal Kwiatkowski beat Peter Sagan at E3...

Kwiatkowski takes on ‘Sky’s blind spot’ at Flanders

The British team says its roster for this weekend's Tour of Flanders is the strongest lineup it's ever fielded in the race.

GENT, Belgium (VN) — Sky has its best classics team yet for the Ronde van Vlaanderen on Sunday, says its team boss David Brailsford. Michal Kwiatkowski and Geraint Thomas will lead the British team, while Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe will serve as backups for the annual race on the Flanders cobbles.

Sky named its Flanders riders ahead of Sunday’s race, with Michal Golas, Christian Knees, Gianni Moscon, and Salvatore Puccio completing the eight-man lineup.

“It’s the best yet in that it’s streamlined and we have clear leaders,” Brailsford told VeloNews.. “In the past, it wasn’t so clear, it was strong with many thinking that they had a chance to lead.”

Sky’s best Flanders performance so far is eighth in 2014 with Welshman Geraint Thomas. The super team, which counts three Tour de France titles, has yet to win a monument. In fact, Belgium’s Het Nieuwsblad newspaper wrote an article Wednesday carrying the headline, “De blinde vlek van team Sky,” which translates to “Team Sky’s blind spot.”

That all could change on Sunday with Kwiatkowski , the 2014 road world champion, serving as the team’s key rider on the cobbles. Sky signed him from Etixx – Quick-Step over the winter to beef up its classics and week-long stage race teams. Last week, he attacked with Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan and beat the 2015 world champion in E3 Harelbeke.

“He lifts the entire level of the team up a notch,” Sky’s classics sport director Servais Knaven told VeloNews. “He won the Amstel Gold Race last year and of course, the worlds. He knows how to do it! The guys can learn from him.”

It already seems to be working. After Kwiatkowski’s solo attack off the Poggio in Milano-Sanremo, Sky’s Ben Swift sprinted to second behind Arnaud Démare of FDJ. Rowe, racing for himself in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, placed fourth. Kwiatkowski flew in for Belgium’s E3 Harelbeke and was victorious.

“He was the big striker that we hired over the winter and he wanted his first big goal,” Brailsford said. “Now that he has it, the pressure’s off.”

Kwiatkowski is one of the big favorites to win Flanders, along with Sagan, Fabian Cancellara (Trek – Segafredo), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), and last year’s winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha). According to sports betting website StanJames.com, Cancellara is at 3-to-1 odds to win, while Sagan is at 4-to-1 and both Kwiatkowski and Van Avermaet are at 7-to-1.

“I’m happy with my condition right now, it’s been growing since Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico,” Kwiatkowski said. “I was sick in February, and I wasn’t able to race in Algarve, but I returned and was happy with my performance in Tirreno and Sanremo.

“To win my first cobbled race of the year, E3, was amazing. I don’t know what to expect from myself in Flanders, but I have to say that I’m really happy to be the leader. To have all the teammates riding for you is just what I need.”

Kwiatkowski last year fought for his place on the classics-strong Etixx team with Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, and Zdenek Stybar. This year, Thomas is Sky’s other big classics rider.

Thomas turned to stage races for 2016, but he is still parachuting in for selected classics. “He’s 29, he had to make the decision now if he was going to devote his time to stage racing and trying to win the Tour de France,” Knaven added. “Still, his heart beats for these classics and if he wants to race Flanders, we’d be crazy not to take him.”