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PARIS (AFP) — Commonwealth Games champion Geraint Thomas (Sky) will find himself a marked man over the next two weeks as the peloton tackles the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on Sunday and then Paris-Roubaix a week later.
With perennial favorites Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick-Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) out injured, both Flanders and Roubaix will be considered the most open they have been in years.
Over the last 10 years, the two races have been won by either Boonen or Cancellara 13 times — and by someone else just seven times.
But Boonen dislocated his collarbone at Paris-Nice in early March while Cancellara fractured two vertebrae in his back when crashing during E3 Harelbeke last Friday.
With the heavyweight pair missing, Thomas won E3 and then took third at Gent-Wevelgem, behind Italian Luca Paolini (Katusha) and Niki Terpstra (Etixx) of the Netherlands.
Those two races came just two days apart and for Thomas to be still there fighting for victory despite the brutal conditions that made Gent-Wevelgem such an enthralling and chaotic race spoke wonders of his strength and form.
Only four other riders managed to earn top-10 finishes in both races but Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal), and Daniel Oss (BMC Racing) were not in contention at the business end of either.
Vanmarcke was part of the six men who contested the victory at Gent-Wevelgem but when Italy’s Paolini attacked 6km from home, the Belgian did not have the legs to fight to the end.
He ended up sixth and 40 seconds down, whereas Thomas had the strength to join Terpstra in trying to hunt down Paolini.
“I’m happy to be on the podium again. Obviously it would have been nice to go for the win but it’s hard when you’re coming into the final and everyone’s attacking,” Thomas said after his third-place Gent-Wevelgem finish.
“People were looking at me a bit after my win on Friday. That’s what it felt like.
“When Paolini went it was a good move for him but we all looked at each other.”
Man to watch
Having finished eighth at Flanders last year and seventh at Roubaix, the Welshman Thomas will surely come to the start line of both races as the man to watch.
It has been an incredible rise to prominence at the spring classics for Thomas, who first announced his potential in 2011 when he was 10th at Flanders and second at the semi-classic Dwars door Vlaanderen.
In 2013 he was fourth at both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke, while last year he really kicked on.
Along with his high placings at Flanders and Roubaix and his Commonwealth title, he was third at E3.
This year Thomas’ form has been better than ever, as he finished fifth overall at the week-long Paris-Nice.
One of Thomas’ problems in recent years has been a propensity to fall, although he denies that it comes from not being a good bike handler.
He hit the deck again on Sunday but so did many other riders. He said his landing was soft and he doesn’t think it will hamper his preparation for the two Monument races coming up.
“The grass was softer that the tarmac! It was unbelievable. The gusts were incredible. It was hard enough just trying to stay on the bike,” he said.
“I’ll rest up now. Have a good massage, eat well, stay in bed and put my feet up until Sunday.”
Come Sunday he will have Terpstra, last year’s Roubaix winner; Vanmarcke, who was top four in both Flanders and Roubaix in 2014; and Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx) for company, at the very least.
Terpstra and Vandenbergh’s teammate Zdenek Stybar should feature too, as will Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) and maybe even Thomas’ Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins.
A top sprinter who can negotiate the cobbles and short climbs such as John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) or Kristoff may also be in the mix, but Thomas could still be the man to beat.