Once upon a time and many moons ago, on the other side of a maillot jaune-winning lap around France, Geraint Thomas was spoken of as the next great hope of British classics riding. As it turned out, he was actually the next-next British winner of the Tour de France.
Bradley Wiggins made it no secret that he dearly wanted to win Paris-Roubaix before he retired, but could never quite pull off the feat. And Luke Rowe has been a fantastic standard-bearer for British classics riding in the past few years, without quite delivering those podium results that British fans craved. In the past ten years, it was really Lizzie Deignan and, to a lesser extent Ian Stannard, who were the best performing British riders in the classics.
The point here is that there have been some incredibly talented British riders who have targeted the classics, but never before has there been a group of racers around the same age so fizzing with potential as we have on our hands right now.
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- Re-Cycle: When Stannard outfoxed the Wolfpack and upset the odds at Omloop
- Ballerini cruises to victory at Omloop
- Pedersen roars to victory, GB's Pidcock third at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
Highlights: Davide Ballerini powers away to take men's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
On Saturday, Jake Stewart of Groupama-FDJ put in the standout ride of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – with the exception, maybe, of Davide Ballerini who actually won the thing.
The 21-year-old took second from a field sprint including some of the sport's most feted names: Philippe Gilbert, Matteo Trentin, Sep Vanmarcke. Indeed, that trio could probably lay claim to having raced more classics than Stewart has had hot dinners.
Stewart said after Omloop: "This is where my heart is and I love the Belgian races." It is easy to see that the Belgian races love him back.
If Jake Stewart's wasn't a name everyone in cycling knew before this Opening Weekend, Tom Pidcock's certainly was. He's the multi-talented winner of basically every junior and under-23 race going, a name that has been bandied about for what already feels like a decade. There has never been any question over his talent, but now, there is also no question of whether he can deliver results in a men's elite road race.
The Yorkshireman was third at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and managed 55th at Omloop after what looked like a kamikaze attempt to bridge across to the leading group in the middle part of Saturday's race. The move was incredibly gutsy, required Pidcock to dig enormously deep, and eventually proved successful. He went on to attack the lead group several more times before eventually running out of gas. Whether he could have done better in the final of Omloop if he hadn't made quite so many gutsy moves early on is impossible to say.
What we do know is that his Omloop exploits did not diminish his performance at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne one iota. The British rider was perhaps just slightly too eager in the final sprint, putting his nose in the wind a few seconds too soon, but he rode the preceding 196 kilometres faultlessly.
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There are other encouraging green shoots for British classics riding too.
Ethan Hayter (22) would surely have done much better than 66th in Omloop had he not been brought down in a crash at the crucial moment right before the final. Until he hit the tarmac, the main impediment to his success seemed to be his own teammate's reticence to give him a turn.
On Saturday in the women's Omloop, Anna Henderson (also 22) put in a strong showing to deliver a top 20 in her first WorldTour race for new team Jumbo-Visma. With that squad headed up by the legendary Marianne Vos, Henderson is in the perfect place to learn and develop.
The outlook is certainly good for this next crop of British classics talent.
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