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With no podiums, is Sky’s altitude approach to the classics a failure?

The British squad failed to convert its stage-racing prowess to the cobbles and the questions will no doubt start

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GHENT, Belgium (VN) — Sky leaves its classics campaign behind without a win or even a podium in the big races. Though it excels in stage racing — Richie Porte snapped up second place at the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) on Saturday — its best result in Northern Europe was a third-place ride for Mathew Hayman in the Dwars door Vlaanderen semi-classic.

In Paris-Roubaix yesterday, its last test prior to a changing of guard for the Ardennes classics, Sky came away with 12th place via Bernhard Eisel.

Eisel saved the day by making the key move on the Mons-en-Pévèle sector. No one else remained for the Brits following a surge by Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).

Promising start for Sky in Paris-Roubaix

Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen signaled a promising start at Roubaix by joining the early power move with Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing), John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano), and former winner Stuart O’Grady (Orica-GreenEdge). When the move faded, Hayman countered and went free. His surge, with three others, lasted around 80 kilometers.

Omega Pharma, in a similar position without a leader and plenty of strong men, played the same card. Alongside Hayman, it had Gert Steegmans. The Belgians used him well, allowing Niki Terpstra a stepping-stone and setting up Zdenek Stybar and Vandenbergh for the final.

Sky, on the other hand, failed, partly due to a lack of luck and partly due to a lack of legs.

Thomas crashed in the Trouée d’Arenberg and Warlaing à Brillon cobbled sectors. The team’s designated leader, Ian Stannard, also crashed. He and Boasson Hagen faded in the Mons-en-Pévèle aftermath. Thomas never really recovered.

“It’s another frustrating day again, what can I say?” Thomas said in the velodrome’s infield.

Being too far back, he added, increased his chances of crashing.

“It simply shows that it’s not only about being physically fit, there’s a lot more to it,” he said. “We’ve been working since November for these [classics], it’s just frustrating.”

“On [Mons-en-Pévèle] where the race split apart it was all about the legs and we didn’t quite have the strength to be there. Bernie was up there, but of course we hoped for more,” director Servais Knaven said in a press release. “Up until that point we had been racing really well with Mathew in the break. We did a lot of things right we just didn’t have the legs to finish it off.”

Undue criticism?

Like Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome ahead of the Tour de France last year, the classics squad trained at altitude instead of racing in mid-March stage races Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. The idea was that they could train specifically for the classics on the Spanish island of Tenerife and not have the stage races dictate their training.

An entire classics squad had never used such an approach, one that will now be questioned.

“They tried new concepts, high [altitude] training. Other teams did the program we did, the usual program,” Omega Pharma boss Patrick Lefevere said a week earlier in a press conference. “We will see after the classics when we make the bill if they were right. If they were to win Flanders and Roubaix, next year everyone would be in Tenerife! If not, then maybe they will stay home as well.”

Thomas explained that he felt as good as he ever had in the classics. He added that it was more bad luck and lack of experience that prevented him from taking a win or even a podium in one of the big classics.

“We started in 2010 and it took a few years for the grand tours teams to get going,” Thomas said last week in a press conference. “It’ll take a year or two to get [the classics team] going.”

Perhaps it is even unfair to criticize Sky’s approach. The classics are random, often shaped by crashes and punctures — as Stybar and Vandenbergh both learned late on Sunday.