Sky falling: Stage-racing squad comes up empty once more in cobbled classic

Sky had two cards to play but watched RadioShack rake in the pot at Flanders

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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — If Bernhard Eisel’s seventh place in Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend was a blow to Team Sky’s aspirations for classics success, Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen might qualify as a disaster.

On paper, with a lineup that included Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, and Edvald Boasson Hagen, the team seemed a serious contender for victory. But one need look no further than the reversals of fortune for Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) in 2012 and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) this year to see how hard it is to match performance on the cobbles to expectations on paper.

So too it was for Sky, which limped away from Oudenaarde with only Boasson Hagen’s 17th place — and plenty of disappointed faces — to show for a long, cold Sunday in the saddle.

Thomas’ hopes for victory at Flanders evaporated at the end of his second trip up the Kwaremont. The Welshman was glued to the wheel of Peter Sagan (Cannondale) when a bump from his right sent him pinballing across the course to his left, where he made contact with another rider and instantly hit the deck.

Aided by teammate Salvatore Puccio, he launched a furious effort that put him back in contact with the peloton on the slopes of the Paterberg, but the chase cost him his final match, leaving him nothing else to burn when Cancellara and Sagan surged away from the bunch.

“There’s just nothing to say,” said Thomas, clearly disappointed, outside the team bus after the race. “You spend all day staying out of trouble, and the boys — and Luke — looked after me really well and everything was right. The legs felt good and I was ready to give it a good go, but at the top of the Kwaremont … boom, I went down. It just took a lot of energy to get back.”

Thomas’ misfortune shifted the team’s focus to Boasson Hagen, who managed to claw his way into perfect position behind Cancellara and Sagan in time for the decisive move.

But he was overmatched by Cancellara’s vicious attack. The Norwegian national champion looked defeated at the finish of the race, but struck a more philosophical note in an interview and hour later.

“I was at the right place, but the legs weren’t there … it was too hard for me,” he said. “I was at the right places most of the time, so I’m satisfied with that. I’m pretty happy, but the result is nothing. But I was at the right place, and that’s good.”

Still, the late-race damage weighed more heavily psychologically than physically for a team that rallied valiantly from a bad week to put so many of its riders within striking distance of one of cycling’s biggest prizes.

A stomach ailment ripped through the team in the run-up to Flanders, leaving the team’s security system for Thomas and Boasson Hagen on shaky ground from the outset of the race. But the team nonetheless put both riders in position to win and neither managed to deliver.

Six hard hours in the Flemish Ardennes in near-freezing weather will exact a heavy toll on an ailing team that has seen its hopes dashed twice in eight days. Will it be a price too steep for a team with real hopes on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, now just a week away?

Sky sport director Servaes Knaven said no.

“A bike race is a bike race, Sagan was favorite today and he got second,” said Knaven. “There are more favorites for (next) Sunday, but we’re not going to worry — that’s not a good thing. We believe in the team and they believe in themselves, and Sunday is a totally different race. We will have good morale for Sunday again.”

Still, Knaven acknowledged that, despite the team’s promising roster, earning classics results equal to their stage-race successes would not be easy.

“I think it was going really well, but we also have to maybe admit that Fabian and Sagan at that moment were better,” he said. “And I think everybody, our captains, like [Geraint] and [Edvald] are in good shape. But when you’re in the wheel and they drop you, then they are better. And then you see that Sagan got dropped on the Paterberg, so you know Fabian is better.”

Sky riders said they planned to rest and recover this week, looking to return to health for a tune-up at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday in Antwerp, Belgium, before making the short transfer to France to recon the Paris-Roubaix course on Thursday.

If the team can rally — and stay healthy — it will arrive at next Sunday’s start in Compiegne, France, with the same squad that carried two riders to within striking distance of a major upset in Flanders despite bad luck. If Sky can do that much again, and it likely will — the team’s biggest strength is its consistency — it may just have a chance at that elusive classics prize.

Boasson Hagen, possibly Sky’s best chance in Roubaix, said that despite his disappointment in Flanders, he was counting the days until his next test on the cobbles.

“I look forward to Sunday,” he said. “So we’ll see. I’m getting stronger every year, so hopefully I can be up there this year.”


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