By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - Team Sky prepared in unconventional fashion for the Flanders classic races this season, hoping to crush the competition as they have been doing on stage events, but results let them down.
The British team have only Mathew Hayman's third place in the Dwars door Vlaanderen race to boast about while Geraint Thomas managed fourth in the Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke.
In the biggest European classics - Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix - they sometimes were a factor, like Ian Stannard at Milan-San Remo, but they were never true contenders.
"It shows it's not just about being physically fit," Thomas told a handful of reporters as he reflected, his face covered with dust, on his classics performances after finishing a distant 79th in Paris-Roubaix on Sunday.
Sky, who powered Bradley Wiggins to Tour de France glory last year, held a training camp in Tenerife under the guidance of head of performance support Tim Kerrison to prepare for the 2013 season.
The method raised a few eyebrows, with Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen's race time entering Milan-San Remo being reduced by a third compared to last year.
"To prepare for the classics you need to 'eat' stress and cobbles," Europcar sports director Andy Flickinger told Reuters, explaining the need for race time heading into the classics, which this year have taken place in tough weather conditions.
In Boasson Hagen and Welshman Thomas, Sky have two of the biggest prospects for the classics.
British champion Stannard also headed into the season in ominous form but it did not help, even if Thomas felt great at the start of Paris-Roubaix.
"I was just too far back going into one of the (cobbled) sectors and then there was a crash ahead of me. It took me a while to get my bike together and that was it then - it was the end of the day," he said.
"I should have been further forward, I learnt it the hard way."
Classics are particular in that luck and jockeying for position play a big role - something long rides in the Spanish sun cannot make up for.
"In the (grand) tours and stuff you can have a good threshold in the time trials and the mountain (stages), you know you're going to be there or thereabouts," Thomas explained.
"Here, position, crashes, luck all come into play. I think we've given everything since November. It's frustrating in the way it ended.
"It's just so hard. You've got to be positioned (near the front of the peloton) all the time. You can't have one second when you're off a bit."
Sky also paid dearly for a strategic failure.
Just like Omega Pharma-Quick Step and BMC, they did not race for a designated team leader, preferring to place their eggs in different baskets.
(Editing by Mark Meadows)