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Great expectations: Sky a tale of two teams

Sky put forth two performances on Sunday: A GC 1-2 finish in a stage race and a missed opportunity in a classic

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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — It was a tale of two bike races on Sunday for Sky, and it couldn’t have better illustrated the two worlds in which the British outfit resides: stage race successes and classics frustrations.

Sky riders Chris Froome and Richie Porte offered a stage racing clinic Sunday at Critérium Internationale, with Froome attacking from 5.5 kilometers out on the Col de l’Ospedale and Porte lighting another fuse 3km later.

When the dust cleared, Froome won the overall and the stage, with Porte second in both. It was an absolute demonstration in tactical acumen and physical ability — something Sky has become known for after last year’s surgical Tour de France, which saw Froome finish second to Bradley Wiggins’ metronomic ride.

“This is a perfect result for them because they are best friends and it will be a great memory for them to look back on in the future,” sport director Nicolas Portal said afterward.

On the very same day, Sky saw its classics campaign tell a different story: Bernhard Eisel made the winning break, but seemed caught between commitment to the break, himself, and his teammates behind, notably Edvald Boasson Hagen. Ultimately, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) rode off the sharp end of the break with more than 3km to go and took Ghent-Wevelgem easily.

“Ah, I suck. I absolutely suck. I’m not happy with the result,” Eisel said afterward, only slightly joking. “I’m happy with the performance, but not the result that came of it. I could have finished third. To win was impossible. There was no way to pass Sagan today. But third, definitely possible.”

The classics campaign comes in stark relief to the stage-racing revelry: Founded in 2009, Sky dedicated itself completely to winning a grand tour with a British rider within five years, and it achieved that with relative expedience, in Wiggins last season. Sky Principal Dave Brailsford, on the eve of the season, said his team had been “shit” in the classics, and that it intended to do better.

The team approached that goal with its methodical pedagogy; classics riders sat out traditional spring stage races such as Paris-Nice in favor of a training camp on Tenerife. Specificity worked with the Tour de France, and so it could work with the classics, the thinking went.

The inherent problem is that a classic is essentially a queen stage with no payback the next day: the racing is undefined by any structure outside of the day itself. In a classic, there is no tomorrow but only next year.

Sky hasn’t been “shit” in this year’s early one-day classics, but it hasn’t been able to win one yet. Ian Stannard finished sixth at Milano-Sanremo; Geraint Thomas finished fourth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Friday’s E3 Harelbeke, and Eisel took seventh Sunday. Sky has been consistent — something it has shown a penchant for in stage races — but not dazzling. That can win a stage race, but not a monument.

“I was a lucky man that I’ve won one in my life,” Eisel said after Ghent. “And I’m working on winning another one.”

This year’s one-day races have been no picnic for even winning teams; weather has wrought havoc, shortening both Milano-Sanremo and Ghent-Wevelgem, and it’s been bone-chilling cold in Belgium for weeks. Rod Ellingworth, Sky’s performance manger, made no excuses Sunday after he watched Eisel cross the line.

“It’s the same for everybody though,” he said. “It’s not unusual. It’s OK. We’re just missing out on the podium, really, aren’t we? So the guys are there. They’re doing a good job. I think they’re being very consistent every race. It’s just every day trying to pull off the win. Again, today was a little bit of a difficult situation, when you’ve got Quick Step with Cav behind, and you’ve got Bernie in a decent group. Your odds are pretty good on him getting a decent result at least.

“But with Sagan there? That was a good move from him. I think we could have been more aggressive on the circuit, which is what we were planning to do, which didn’t quite happen. It was frustrating.”

That’s it, really: The classics have been frustrating for a team that’s otherwise remarkable at managing stage-race chaos. Winning has become something Sky not only trains for, but executes.

“We’re here to win, aren’t we? And that’s it really. And that’s all, isn’t it? We’re not here trying to do anything else. And I think — I mean everybody puts the same effort in,” Ellingworth said of the competition.

It’s possible that Sky is a victim of its own success. Great results yield great expectations. To that, Ellingworth sees a bit of truth, but thinks the general public understands these are different races and different riders.

“And everybody knows the classics can go either way, from winning, to doing really well, to you could be there with two or three to go in a bunch or four or anything. And I think that’s the beauty of the classics,” Ellingworth said. “It’s that sort of diversity in terms of what happens on the day. And you make one mistake and you can pay massively for it. But that’s all. We’ve got a good group. The lads have all got good morale. They’re feeling good, they race well.”

Consider what Sagan did as a case study in the classics. He could have sprinted everyone in the breakaway, yet he reacted furiously to an attack and countered to a win, no sprint necessary. Just two days prior, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) rode off the front on the top of the Oude Kwaremont to a solo win in Harelbeke. The classics are unpredictable, which gives a team founded upon methodology trouble.

“They’re just great, aren’t they,” Ellingworth said of Cancellara’s and Sagan’s wins. “And Sagan, fair play to him. He’s due this win, isn’t he? And he rode so well there today. Everybody was expecting him to wait for the sprint win — which is typical him, isn’t it?”

Typical in the sense that his nature is atypical.

Asked what Sky was missing, Eisel noting it was something not even Sky could plan for in a bike race.

“We’re missing nothing. It’s just probably a bit of luck. So far, we’ve had two classics,” he said. “One, won by Sagan and one won by Cancellara. It’s not like getting beaten by them is a shame. We’re on track.”

Sky has another week to ponder its plan for Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), where plans don’t matter much at all.