Each spring, the long black and blue train that pulled Sky to two successive Tour de France victories has cracked, crumbled, and ultimately evaporated, smashed into Northern Europe’s cobbles like so much fine china. An undeniable and impressive ability to control stage races has rarely transferred to the chaos of the classics.
Ian Stannard’s win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last year marks the team’s foremost classics victory. It stands in stark contrast to success elsewhere.
Perhaps it is that the methodical, meticulous riding, which served Sky so well in earning two yellow jerseys and wins at a healthy handful of smaller stage races in between, simply doesn’t translate to the relative anarchy of one-day racing. Perhaps it’s luck. Perhaps it’s strategy. Perhaps it’s that, until now, the classics have been an afterthought to the squad’s myopic stage race focus.
That is changing. The team’s goals expanded for 2015, team boss David Brailsford said in January.
“We see some opportunities in the monuments and classics,” he said. “We have to get one of those on our palmares.”
Sky has a new focus on the classics. The team now knows it can put riders in the finale of races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. It has a confidence there that was lacking before; Bradley Wiggins admitted that finding himself at the pointy end of Roubaix last year came as something of a surprise.
The team, this year and into the future, will take a queue from the best classics squads: diversify.
“I think strength in numbers is key really, when it comes to the classics,” Geraint Thomas told VeloNews, rolling to the start line of the Dubai Tour last week. Thomas is a symbol of the team’s wider focus; he’s proven his value across the season, from early monuments to super-domestique duties at the Tour. He’s at the center of Sky’s effort to expand its spring campaign.
The classics are not controlled through the power of domestiques, lined up and charging on the front, holding back attacks and keeping breakaways in check. They are controlled more subtly — by the number of teammates still in cohesion when the front group dwindles, by the composition of breakaways, by the confidence of a team in both its leader and his strong lieutenants. The multi-pronged attack is a tactic that has long been understood by the sport’s great one-day race squads.
The decisive strength of a team like Etixx-Quick-Step, proven now across two decades, comes less from a string of strong domestiques than from its wide range of riders capable of taking victory. Combine Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, and Stijn Vandebergh, each capable of winning a race like Roubaix in his own right, and the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts.
Sky still can’t bring such horsepower to a classics startline. But between Wiggins, Thomas, Ian Stannard, Ben Swift, and up-and-comers like Luke Rowe, who made the select final group in Qatar on Monday, and strongman Andy Fenn, the team has a good chance of putting multiple riders into the late moves.
“I think we’ve got a strong team for the classics. Hopefully Ian [Stannard] stays fit an healthy, and Brad. I think we can look to do something,” Thomas said.
A flexible British rider whom the team can hang its specialists upon throughout the season, one who was once touted as a GC contender, Thomas has now settled on versatility over specificity. In each of the last three summers, he has proven invaluable to his stage race captains; now it will be Thomas’ legs upon which the team relies in March and April, too.
“I’ll try and hit the [classics] block in good shape, good form, and try to get what I can out of it,” Thomas said. “I’m not too fussed what race. I’ll take anything, really. But I’m looking forward to them. They’re the early-season goals.”
He’ll be surrounded by Sky’s strongest classics squad yet, and a team and staff with a renewed focus on one-day racing. That may be the push he needs to grab his first big one-day title.
If not, there’s always backup. Wiggins, for one, is keen to go out on a high note at Roubaix, his final race on the road.
“Roubaix is what [Wiggins] is targeting, but I think we’ll have a few cards, a few options, and we can go from there. We’ll race it on the road,” Thomas said.