With its hellish cobbled sections, steep hills and over a century of history, the Tour of Flanders is one of cycling’s – if not sport’s – most iconic races.
The unforgiving course has left many a rider’s dreams in tatters down the years and the Belgian Monument proved to be something of a mixed bag for Team GB’s cyclists on Sunday.
Lizzie Armitstead continued her incredible form since becoming world champion late last year to win the women’s edition for the first time.
Meanwhile, in the men’s race, Geraint Thomas was considered a legitimate contender for victory but could only finish 12th – although his Team Sky teammate Luke Rowe crossed the line in a creditable fifth place.
Prior to the start of the season, Armitstead insisted the Tour of Flanders and Rio 2016 Olympic Games were her main goals and was understandably ecstatic to successfully tick off the first of those.
The 27-year-old bettered her runner-up spot from 2014, and became just the second female British winner after Nicole Cooke in 2007, by breaking away with Emma Johansson on the last climb and then beating her Swedish rival by less than half a wheel in the final sprint.
“I needed her to open the sprint before me, and she did,” said Armitstead. “At that point, it’s not about who is fastest, it’s who is freshest. I was tired, and you could see that in my sprint. It was a race all the way to the line.
“I knew in my gut that I had won because I knew my momentum took me over the top of her. Generally you know in that situation, but I didn’t dare risk it. I knew for certain when she congratulated me.
“I’m delighted but it’s also a big relief. I’ve got that win, that career goal done, and now it’s all about shifting focus. It’s a good way to start putting the spring behind me and thinking about Rio.”
Things looking up for Luke
The men’s Tour of Flanders was first run in 1913 but a brief hiatus during World War I meant that the 2016 version was the 100th edition of the race.
The search for a second British winner – after Tom Simpson, who triumphed in 1961 – goes on, although Rowe’s top-five finish was an impressive result in itself.
Slovakia’s Peter Sagan soloed to his first Monument victory with the formidable duo of Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke in hot pursuit, while Rowe was second in the following group.
And the 26-year-old was certainly not downhearted after one of the best results of his career.
"We had numbers in the front," explained Rowe. "Tactically we were really good, we didn't miss any moves, but the three strongest guys who were away in the end were the three strongest guys in the race. There's nothing you can do about that.
"I finished fifth and we had G [Geraint Thomas] up there. We didn't win but we're certainly not too disappointed.
"And for me personally that was a pretty big ride. That was massive for me. So yeah, I'm happy."
Thomas 12th but primed for future success?
For his part, it is a testament to the improvement Thomas has made as a bike rider that 12th in one of the biggest races on the calendar feels like something of a disappointment.
The 29-year-old won the prestigious Paris-Nice stage race earlier this season, has been earmarked as Chris Froome’s chief lieutenant – but also a potential podium finisher – at the 2016 Tour de France and could yet lead Team GB’s charge in the Rio 2016 Olympic road race.
It was not to be for Thomas at this year’s Tour of Flanders but his eighth-place finish in the 2014 edition and his win at the cobbled E3 Harelbeke last year prove that triumphing at the first of the cobbled Monuments in the future is a distinct possibility.
And the Brit admits that winning the race is very much on his cycling bucket list before the end of his career.
“I just love this race. This is still high on my list of races I want to do well in,” Thomas told Cycling Weekly.
“I think I can be happy given that it’s just my first race on the cobbles this year. One week racing 15km climbs with (Alberto) Contador and then trying to do it on a k-and-a-half climb with Fabian is a bit different.
“I had four days ill off the bike last week but I knew I was riding well and was strong after winning Paris-Nice. I knew I’d be there or thereabouts.
“I felt strong, I can be happy with how the legs were, but I just didn’t quite have that real top end, that punch.”
By Luke Baker