Sky nearing classics zenith with monuments approaching

The squad has molded itself into a strong classics contender since it first raced in 2010

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MILAN (VN) — With Ian Stannard’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad win Saturday in Gent, Belgium, Sky showed it is reaching a new level in classics racing after dominating in grand tours over the past five years. With the monuments on the horizon, the result boosted the British team’s morale and sent a warning out to established squads like Etixx-Quick-Step.

“We were all quite young at the start of the team in 2010, but we’ve been growing together and learning the races,” Stannard told VeloNews in February. “It comes down to experience, knowing and learning the races.”

Stannard took on and beat the three-to-one odds Saturday to win Belgium’s first classic of the year. Etixx had Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, and Stijn Vandenbergh in the winning group of four. Vandenbergh attacked and Terpstra countered, but the 27-year-old Brit Stannard still was able to repeat his 2014 victory.

The victory came thanks to Stannard’s tactical wizardry, but also on the back of Sky’s work. He relied on teammates like Luke Rowe, Christian Knees, Bernhard Eisel, and 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins.

Geraint Thomas sat out Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but he will further re-enforce the team for E3 Harelbeke and other classics.

The robustness of the team easily outshines what Sky had when it debuted on the cobbles of northern Europe in 2010. It relied on Edvald Boasson Hagen and Juan Antonio Flecha, but lacked experienced supporting characters. Thomas and Stannard were still young and Rowe had yet to turn professional.

Boasson Hagen left and Flecha retired, while Thomas, Stannard, and Rowe have matured. Last year, Thomas placed seventh in Paris-Roubaix ahead of Wiggins (ninth), who switched from grand tour racing.

“I think we are learning as a team,” said Rowe, who placed ninth behind Stannard on Saturday. “We are now riding perfectly together.”

Team manager David Brailsford must be pleased because the result Saturday fits in perfectly with the “2020 vision” he presented in the offseason.

“The first chapter of Team Sky was successful. We set out to win the Tour de France, to do it clean and to do it with a British rider,” Brailsford said.

“And we are now hungrier than ever. Our mission for 2020 is very simple — for Team Sky to be indisputably and consistently the best cycling team in the world, and to be viewed as one of the very best sports teams in the world. We will do that by winning more races in the next five years than we did in the past five years. And do that consistently in grand tours as well as classics and monuments.”

Etixx remains the benchmark for classics racing, which it partially demonstrated by putting three of its men in the winning move Saturday. It failed to win, but turned around and did so the next day in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

Sky appears to be just as sharp as the first monuments of 2015 approach, starting with Milano-Sanremo on March 22 and continuing with the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on April 5 and Paris-Roubaix on April 12.

“It’s no secret that Quick-Step is the strongest team in these races,” Rowe explained, “but when you go through the names that we have with Geraint, Bernie, and a couple of others … there’s no reason we can’t challenge teams like Quick-Step.”

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