Geraint Thomas claimed a fine fourth position as the Classics season got under way at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
The Brit made his way into an elite chase group as the race began to split up over the infamous Belgian cobbled ‘hellingen’ climbs, holding firm to place fourth after two escapees stayed clear in the closing stages.
Of those men it was Luca Paolini who claimed victory at the first Classic of the year, the Italian (Katusha) winning the two-up sprint with Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step) into Gent after the pair held off the chasers.
Paolini had been active from early on and used his experience to jump on the wheel of his fellow escapee as the pair made a break for it with 25 kilometres remaining. Thomas, who had battled back from an earlier crash, was among the riders giving chase but with the group unable to claw back time, the battle for third came down to a sprint.
Sven Vandousselaere (Topsport-Vlaanderen) showed the best turn of speed to round out the podium with Thomas and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) completing the top five.
Thomas’ Team Sky team-mates had massed in a second group out on the road, with Ian Stannard, Bernhard Eisel and Edvald Boasson Hagen joined by the rest of the team as the peloton came home six minutes and 26 seconds back.
The riders rolled out of Gent with -1°c showing on the thermometer ahead of 199km of hellingen, narrow roads and tough conditions.
With the first hour of the race covered in a rapid 46km/h, nine riders finally battled hard enough to go clear, the peloton giving up the initial fight to allow the gap to spin out to the five-minute mark.
Blanco were the first team to blink, picking up the pace on the front – FDJ and Lotto-Belisol also eventually making their presence felt as the pace shot up on the approach to the Kruisberg climb.
Team Sky finally came to the fore on the Donderij cobbles, but as the race hit the Taaienberg it was 2011 winner Sebastian Langeveld (Orica-GreenEDGE) who arrived on the front, the peloton’s acceleration causing a split in the bunch.
As the climbs followed thick and fast the peloton finally snapped, distinct groups forming while up ahead Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step) seized the opportunity to attack solo, opening up some daylight on the Belgian lanes.
In behind an elite chase group had formed featuring a number of big names including Thomas, Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol), Maarten Wynants (Blanco Cycling), Marco Bandiera (IAM Cycling), Van Avermaet and Paolini.
With Chavanel finally reeled in at the top of the Molenberg it became a battle of the two groups, Orica-GreenEDGE finally committing numbers to the second split which contained the likes of Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step), defending champion Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco) and Team Sky trio Eisel, Stannard and Boasson Hagen.
Yet with the group making no impression behind the leaders fought it out amongst themselves, Quick-Step putting the numerical advantage to good use as Vandenbergh jumped clear with Paolini, building up a dangerous advantage heading into the final 20km.
Despite a brief chase effort the front group were unable to peg back the pair and Paolini used all his guile to come home the victor.
After the dust had settled and the team had thawed out Sports Director Servais Knaven talked us through Thomas’ crash and confirmed he was happy with the team’s first crack at the Classics for 2013.
“G crashed and we thought ‘is this the end of the race for him?’” he admitted. “He was pretty far back but he managed to get back to the front and two hours later he was in the breakaway! It was impressive. He said that the good thing was that he had so many clothes on that he was almost uninjured.
“It was a really good ride. He had really good legs and I think he actually had the legs to be up with the two guys up ahead. But that’s racing and the whole team has a good feeling after today. We were hopeful G could get on the podium today and he came really close.
“It was a really hard day today with the temperature and the wind. The guys did a good job and the rest of the team finished behind G in that main group. They raced smart and G was there when he had to be there. Our guys are getting to know the roads better and better which is important for the races coming up. The guys looked good afterwards too which is encouraging. They are really motivated for the races coming up.”