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Sky edging closer to monumental breakthrough

Luke Rowe notches a career-best result at De Ronde, but Sky is still searching for an elusive monument victory.

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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Team Sky was happy with Luke Rowe’s fifth Sunday at Ronde van Vlaanderen in an oh-so-close breakthrough at the northern classics.

It marked the team’s best performance ever in the Tour of Flanders, and reconfirmed the squad’s renewed ambitions in the Belgian classics, capped by Michal Kwiatkowski’s win at E3 Harelbeke.

“As a team we rode pretty well today,” Rowe said on the team’s website. “We were always at the front and we said we’d try and put a man in every move after the Koppenberg, and I think we did that. On a personal level, I’m obviously pretty chuffed with that. We didn’t win the race but it’s another step forward. I’ve got to be happy with that.”

On Sunday, Sky placed four riders deep into the final, but admitted its riders missed that extra gear to truly challenge for victory. Co-leaders Ian Stannard and 2015 Harelbeke winner Geraint Thomas were both sick in the days before Flanders, and Kwiatkowski said his race-breaking attack came because he said he didn’t have the legs to win. The irony is that it was Kwiatkowski’s surge that opened the door for Peter Sagan’s own breakthrough victory.

“I really felt that I was missing something on the Taaienberg, so I decided to move [early] because I was sure I would not be able to follow Cancellara or Sagan on the Kwaremont, so I tried something different,” Kwiatkowski said at the line Sunday. “It was a nice move, but in the end, I was not able to follow Peter’s wheel. Well, that’s bike racing. Not my day.”

Team Sky’s strong ride Sunday is the latest step in its quest to win a major monument, one of the few cycling milestones that has eluded the UK-registered team since its formation in 2010. Despite its dominance in stage racing, including three Tour de France victories, Sky has yet to win a monument.

Sky has dedicated new resources to the classics this season, and it’s already paying dividends. Ben Swift was second at Milano-Sanremo, while Kwiatkowski, who has already proven his worth with victory at Harelbeke, will now turn his attention to the Ardennes.

Even though he is now fully committed to stage racing, Thomas stepped up for Flanders, crossing the line 12th with the first group despite crashing. Stannard, who skipped defending his title at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to focus completely on Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, attacked on the Koppenberg, but couldn’t reach the day’s early breakaway.

The takeaway Sunday is the strong performance by Rowe, who fought back to the front chase group that included Thomas after coming over the Paterberg. And then he had to legs to take second in the bunch sprint behind defending Flanders champion Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).

Rowe’s career-best top-five is confirmation that the 26-year-old is on the right path. Fourth in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last month, Rowe will now turn his attention to Paris-Roubaix. Last year, he was eighth, just behind the winning group, in another career-best ride.

Thomas and Kwiatkowski are steering clear of Sunday’s “Hell of the North,” so Stannard and Rowe will be carrying team colors across the cobblestones.