Luke Rowe says he is feeling as strong as he ever has, adding that he believes he is capable of providing Team Sky with a first win at tomorrow's Tour of Flanders or at next Sunday's Paris-Roubaix if he rides the perfect race and “Lady Luck” is on his side.
Rowe finished fifth at the Tour of Flanders in 2016 - still Team Sky’s best ever result in the race, which is the second monument of the season - but has suffered wretched luck since. In 2017 the Welshman crashed from the front group with around 50km remaining. While last year, having come back from an horrendous leg break in the summer of 2017, Rowe was controversially disqualified for riding on a bike path.
Now 29, Rowe says he has put that incident firmly behind him and is feeling confident after strong performances at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend and Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, where he finished sixth.
“Definitely the legs are good,” he said. “I've had a pretty good run-in. I did a strong Paris-Nice and [Milan-] San Remo and a few good races here in Belgium.
“Touch wood, everything has gone pretty smoothly. No crashes, no mechanicals. And that can be said for the entire team really. But yeah, I am feeling strong and I am feeling confident. But it's all about the day. We'll just do our best.”
Asked whether he felt he was back to his best after his 2017 accident, which saw him break his leg in 20 places, Rowe said the numbers suggested so, but that it was time for him to “kick on” again after the promise he showed in 2015 and 2016, when he finished eighth at Roubaix and fifth at Flanders.
“This team is a lot about numbers and mine are up there with the best I've ever done,” he said. “But I think, more importantly, physically the sensations on the bike are good. Last year I came back after the accident and rode the final few Classics and I was good but not top. I think that was always going to be the case. I was kind of chasing myself and it was a month too soon.
“But yeah, I think through my [early] career everything progressed well and then the last two years for whatever reason I'm not going to make excuses because it is down to me - I just haven't continued that forward progression. Hopefully I can kick on again this year.”
Rowe said he did not feel he was one of the “big favourites” for the race, but was part of a “second tier”, for whom things would have to go perfectly either this weekend or next weekend for him to prevail.
“There are five, six, eight guys who have that bit more explosiveness than me,” he said. “That’s just a fact. When you look at the guys who are at the pointy end of the classics, I'd say 80 or 90 per cent of them are sprinters in some way, or have been sprinters and are now leaning more towards the classics. So it kind of limits the way to how you can get a result or how you can win.
“I still think there's the chance to slip under the radar in a kind of second tier of favourites.”
Rowe added: “If I was a betting man, I would put my money on Wout van Aert. That's not putting ourselves [Sky] out of the picture. We want to win. But I would say he's probably the favourite. Some of the stuff I've seen him do, and the way he's been riding. He seems quite composed. He's also got a great team around him. Jumbo–Visma have been really impressive in the Classics so far.
“Then you’ve got [first-time rider and fellow cyclo-cross star] Mathieu van der Poel who was really impressive last weekend. And the usual suspects like Greg van Avermaet and Peter Sagan. Sagan may not be quite as dominant as previous years but he's still one of the strongest riders.
“Honestly I think you could throw a blanket across 10-15 riders. It's finer margins [than in previous years]. It should be one of the most exciting and open Tour of Flanders to date.”
Rowe said if he could pick either Flanders or Roubaix, he would go for Roubaix “every day of the week”, and also feels it is more suited to him and team mate Ian Stannard. But a win in either, before Sky leave the sport in a few weeks to be replaced by Ineos would be “massive”.
Team Sky have won six of the last seven editions of the Tour de France, but their record in the Monuments - cycling’s five biggest one-day races - is relatively poor. One win at Milan-San Remo and one win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Podiums at Roubaix for Juan-Antonio Flecha and Stannard remain their best results in the two big beasts.
“For me these are the two biggest bike races in the world,” he said. “I would choose them over any other race. If you offered me the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix, I would choose Paris-Roubaix.
“Throughout the course of the whole season I get a handful of opportunities to race for myself and they are all crammed into a month. That's just the way it is. You've got to grab it with both hands.
“You do need Lady Luck on your side but if I do everything right on Sunday, follow the right moves, look after myself, no mistakes, and I get dropped on a climb, what can you do? It's out of your control.
"I just want to do everything right, right place right time, and the end result will be what the end result will be. I just hope it isn't decided by a crash or something.”