GENT, Belgium (VN) — A year ago Ian Stannard was the hardest of the hardmen, roaring to an impressive sprint victory over BMC’s perennial local hero Greg Van Avermaet after a miserable, sodden Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
It was Team Sky’s first big breakthrough in true classics conditions, a total team effort over 198 kilometers of cold, rainy, windswept Flemish hills and cobbles, delivering Stannard to the decisive move — and, eventually, to victory — in a race that the favorite, Tom Boonen, later described as the coldest of his life.
And it looked like Stannard had finally delivered on his promise as a classics rider, capable of carrying the hopes of a Sky squad that had invested heavily to improve its chances in the big early season one-day races.
Four weeks later, at Gent-Wevelgem, the first major Belgian classic, the 26-year-old Briton disappeared into a ditch with 60km to go. He emerged, with considerable assistance, several minutes later.
His hopes for a breakthrough season stayed in the ditch.
Recalling the accident on Saturday, Stannard said, “Someone came across my front wheel, I saw the deep ditch and thought, ‘Don’t end up in there,’ but ended up in there upside down. I broke my back and then I had three months completely off my bike.
“You know, as a cyclist, you think, ‘I’ve done this, I’ll keep going,’ but it was one of them ones where you have to listen to the doctor, unfortunately. So I had three months completely off, just sat on the sofa. So it was a long time. I put on a lot of weight, got really unfit, and, you know, riding the bike was a bit of a struggle again.”
It didn’t get better. In the first stage of what was supposed to be his big comeback race, the Tour of Britain, Stannard crashed and fractured his wrist, stamping an ugly exclamation point on an already star-crossed season.
But on Saturday, under sunny early spring skies, Stannard was finally, truly back, cleverly parrying attacks by a formidable trio of Etixx-Quick-Step riders to take his second consecutive Omloop win.
He had ridden well already this season, finishing fourth overall in the Tour of Qatar, but Saturday’s race was his first real test. On the roads where he most aspires to win, outnumbered and, arguably, outgunned by Niki Terpstra, Tom Boonen, and Stijn Vandenbergh, Stannard played his cards perfectly.
“I just really wanted to do well in this race and kind of show I was back at the level I was last year,” he said afterward. “It’s been a hard couple of months since breaking my back, then getting fit, then breaking my wrist. The winter’s been a bit of a struggle, I put on a lot of weight because I couldn’t really ride so much. You know, I started my winter early. There were guys still racing in Beijing and I had started my winter. So I’m pretty happy to perform today.”
Stannard was one of two men who managed to cover Etixx’s three-pronged attack on the Haaghoek cobbles, but the other, Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto NL-Jumbo), quickly punctured, leaving him alone in the lead group.
Behind, Vanmarcke chased with Van Avermaet and a fourth Etixx teammate, Zdenek Stybar, some 25 seconds down. Etixx, it appear, had set up a perfect tactical scenario. Stannard, isolated, would never be able to counter the series of attacks that would surely unfold as the race reached its climax in the final kilometers.
But Stannard, who described himself as “certainly not the smartest” rider, nonetheless proved a savvy competitor. With Vanmarcke chasing hard behind, the burden was on Etixx to do the work in the lead group.
“At first, I was comfortable, I didn’t have to ride, they were going hard, I was like, ‘This is good,’” he said. “But then you start thinking the different scenarios and they were going to attack me at the end, weren’t they? There’s not much you can do.
“You know, thankfully the guys behind were still really close. Sep Vanmarcke was still riding really hard, and it was always 18 to 20 seconds. So the Etixx guys had to ride hard and it killed them really, at the end. It played into my hands. Doesn’t get any better, does it?”
If Stannard’s victory was proof of his return to top form, it was also a vindication for a Sky squad that, in his absence, once again failed to produce a major classics win in 2014.
“I think in general the team was really good today,” said Sky sport director Servais Knaven. “I think the team deserves the win as well. We raced today for it as a team. I think it’s a win for everyone on the bus.”
Saturday, everyone on the bus included riders with their own impressive credentials, mostly notably Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins, who spent much of the early part of the race riding tempo to keep Sky’s declared leader, Stannard, safe at the front.
Stannard told reporters he felt he had grown into his role as a team leader in spite of his year off, but added that he was pleased not to let down the team that had done so much for him.
“When the Tour de France champion is riding for you, it makes you a bit stressed,” he said. “But you know, the guys did a great job helping me into all the climbs and getting me to the right places. I didn’t have to try too hard, just ended up on the back of Quick-Step, I waited for them and off we went.”
Knaven, meanwhile, acknowledged Stannard’s shrewd racing and impressive form, ahead of bigger races just weeks from now.
“Ian knows what he has to do,” said Knaven. “If Quick-Step starts attacking and you want to win the race, you follow every move they make. And, you know, when you close on someone, the other one will go. And then it’s all in the legs.”
On Saturday, Stannard’s legs delivered. Will they do it again in four weeks’ time when the true Flemish classics kick off with the same Gent-Wevelgem race that effectively ended his 2014 season?
“[Today] certainly put me back on track for it,” he said. “So I’m just putting my head down and working hard and hopefully it will come.”