Geraint Thomas and Sir Bradley Wiggins secured hard-fought top-10 finishes at the end of a breathless edition of Paris-Roubaix.
The Team Sky pairing dug deep across a fast and dusty parcours and found themselves in the lead group on the run into the famous Roubaix Velodrome, eventually finishing seventh and ninth respectively, 20 seconds behind breakaway winner Niki Terpstra.
The Dutchman (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step) jumped clear with six kilometres remaining and would not be caught as an elite group of chasing riders had no answer.
Team Sky displayed impressive teamwork during the brutal 257km event and retained numbers at the head of affairs for almost the entire Monument. Thomas played a key role as he attacked 65km out, making his way into a strong breakaway featuring Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step).
The race was finely poised for much of the day, but with Wiggins, Bernhard Eisel (13th), Edvald Boasson Hagen (21st) and Luke Rowe (31st) all waiting in the chasing pack, Team Sky always had riders in the running for a top result.
Boasson Hagen produced a gutsy ride to make it back to the lead group after crashing off the road and into a field with 70km remaining. Earlier in the day both the Norwegian and Thomas had been distanced briefly following a crash at the head of the race which also took down Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing).
John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) edged out the fight for second spot, 20 seconds after Terpstra had crossed the line. Cancellara claimed third after a number of characteristic accelerations in the closing stages.
After working hard early on alongside Christian Knees (65th) and Salvatore Puccio (112th), Gabriel Rasch (117th) completed what was the final race of his career before moving on to become a Sports Director with the team.
After the race Wiggins admitted that he had mixed feeling about the result, but was happy to be among the top performers on the big Classics stage.
"There’s a tinge of disappointment because I really had the legs," he confirmed. "Even in the final I felt strong. There was a part of it where I was pinching myself a bit – I don’t mind admitting that. It was a real honour to be there in the final. Going past Boonen on the Carrefour was something special. And then to come onto the Velodrome with the group of Cancellara and those guys – to be there was great.
"I’ve got the confidence now that I can do it now and match those guys. To go top 10 I think in hindsight is a good result. There’s not many Tour de France winners that have gone top 10 in Roubaix. On a personal note it’s a nice thing.
"We had G up there all day pushing. I was aware of that and I was just fighting to get into those sectors in the front. I’m just pleased that I committed to it and I didn’t bottle it. That’s a big part of what it’s all about.
"When the two groups came together with 10km I attacked after that we felt a bit out-numbered and it was going to be difficult. But then Terpstra played it perfectly. To have two guys there is great. There’s been such a good spirit in the team."
Thomas spent much of the day off the front and admitted to emptying the tank for the cause on the run for home.
"It was frustrating that some of the riders sat on in the move," he said. "If we’d all ridden together then you never know how far we might have gone. They only really caught us on Carrefour de l’Arbre. My legs really started to go there. The rider in front of me left the wheel open and I couldn’t close it.
"Then it all came back together, but I was on my knees to be honest in the last 10km. I spoke to Brad and he said he felt good. When Terpstra when I looked to commit and try to keep the gap as small as possible. Brad didn’t really have the opportunity to go in the end, so it just came down to the sprint. Against those sort of guys it’s hard enough to beat them when I’m fresh. I tried to hit them on the back straight.
"It’s nice to get a top 10 again. The way I rode it wasn’t the easy way. We were out front for a lot of the time. It’s satisfying, but at the same time we wanted to get a podium. I think we’ve definitely improved as a whole over the Classics season. We’re missing (Ian) Stannard who would have been a key rider for us today."
Dry and dusty
After an early break had gone clear business began to pick up as the race hit the first of 28 dry and dusty cobbled sectors.
Team Sky led the line through Haveluy and ensured they were well-positioned heading into the famous Arenberg Trench, Eisel putting his experience to good use.
With the race stretched accelerations began on Warlaing-Brillon, and it wasn’t long before Thomas made a key move, helping spark a key nine-man move. Boonen (who would go on to finish 10th) accelerated on Orchies and bridged across to Thomas and his counterparts, quickly driving the group from the front.
As the sectors wore on, all eyes centred on defending champion and Flanders victor Cancellara, but when the inevitable attacks came they failed to rip the race apart as in previous years.
Wiggins clung on and as more rivals fell away, the Tour de France winner found himself in a great position as the race came back together on entry to Camphin-en-Pevele and the final 20 kilometres.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale) had launched his own bid for freedom but despite a stint off the front, the young Slovakian (Cannondale) would have to be content with sixth place at the line.
Two groups on the road finally regrouped inside the final 10km to set up a nail-biting finish. After an initial acceleration from Wiggins the Brit worked with Thomas on the run-in, but it would be Terpstra who took the spoils with a perfectly measured attack.