Stannard shakes up classics program to prep for cobbles

The Sky rider won the last two editions of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but he'll skip this year's race in favor of putting in stage race miles.

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — Ian Stannard won’t be defending his back-to-back titles at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this year as he ramps up his ambitions for the northern classics.

The 28-year-old delivered an exquisite victory last year in the Belgian semi-classic against a trio of Etixx – Quick-Step riders, but for 2016, he is putting his focus on arriving in top form to the cobblestones and won’t aim for the Omloop triple.

“I am not doing Omloop this year or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne,” the Sky rider told VeloNews. “It’s a bit too early, and we want to change that up a little bit. The idea is to be strong for Flanders week.”

The Belgian pair of races has been part of his racing program every year since 2010, but Stannard will detour around Omloop and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in the opening weekend of the Belgian calendar in late February.

Why? It’s all about hitting peak form in early April, so trying something different, and avoiding possibly poor weather in late February or injury, will help. Instead, he will race the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice before tackling the spring classics.

“I am going to come into the season a little easier, and it will be good to get another stage race in [Paris-Nice],” Stannard said. “Sometimes you go through the same motions, the same races, the same situation, so it’s nice to spice it up a little bit. I’ve never done Algarve or Paris-Nice, so I am looking forward to it.”

Stannard and Sky are hoping the different approach to the spring classics will help deliver an elusive victory on the cobblestoned classics. Despite winning three of the past four editions of the Tour de France, Sky has been unable to deliver a major, one-day victory.

That’s a major priority for the squad going into 2016, and Stannard, now in his seventh season with the British team, will be the go-to man for the pavé. Geraint Thomas, long the team’s reliable performer across the northern classics, might skip such races as E3 Harelbeke and Paris-Roubaix this year, racing only the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) as he transitions into a leaner, more GC-oriented role for Sky’s Tour program.

That opens the door for Stannard, who said he’s dreamed of winning Paris-Roubaix since he was a teenager.

“It would be pretty cool to be the first British rider to win Roubaix,” Stannard said. “I remember Roger Hammond was third, and Geraint and I were still juniors, and we were in the velodrome, watching him come in. To see that, it made you dream that you could be there in a few years.”

That dream is closer than ever for Stannard, who’s also been a steady member of the Tour de France squad by doing the heavy work early in the transition stages. At 6-foot-2, he seems born for the hard stuff.

“Banging up a mountain never really appealed to me,” Stannard said. “I remember watching Servais [Knaven], [Johan] Museeuw and [George] Hincapie, absolutely caked in mud that one year, and ever since then, it was part of my imagination. I went out to Belgium when I was younger, and I was able to do some of the races. Racing on the cobbles, in Flanders, it really is special. I really love it.”

With Sky putting even more focus on grand tours and the Ardennes classics by signing new riders such as Michal Kwiatkowski, Danny Van Poppel, and Beñat Intxausti, Stannard could well be his team’s standard-bearer across the northern classics. He’s only punched into the top-40 once (36th in the 2011 Paris-Roubaix), but Stannard believes he can become a player in the cobbled monuments.

“It doesn’t happen overnight. In the one-day races, it’s all out, and you’ve really got to know the roads,” he said. “That’s where the Belgians have a big advantage, they’ve been racing around those roads since they were 14 and know them like the back of their hands.”

Stannard is hoping his unlikely victory in last year’s Omloop, when he outfoxed three Etixx riders to win, will bode well for the next few campaigns across the cobbles.

“It was pretty special. To win against the three Etixx riders, that was a pretty cool scenario,” Standard said. “It was more Quick Step making a lot of mistakes than me getting it right, to be honest. It was awesome to put the win away, especially against riders like Boonen. I watched him racing Roubaix when I was younger, and to beat him like that was pretty special.”

Stannard is banking on shaking up his approach to the cobbles by logging additional miles in stage racing. He hopes this will help give him the depth and strength to go the extra distance of the major classics, which hit 240km to 260km.

“That’s what really sets guys like Cancellara and Boonen apart, Standard said. “The race takes on a whole different scenario when it’s over 200km, and it’s all a question of who has the legs in that last hour of racing.”