Ian Stannard’s initial feeling on making the winning selection at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was one of relief, but the reality of his predicament slowly began to dawn on him as the famous grey towers of Ghent drew nearer on the horizon.
When the dust settled after the cobbled section at Haaghoek with 40 kilometres remaining, Stannard found himself in a four-man break with no fewer than three Etixx-QuickStep riders for company. It’s hard to imagine at that moment that there was a single bookmaker in Flanders prepared to lay odds on the Sky man outmanoeuvring Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh.
“At first I was comfortable, I didn’t have to ride, but then you start thinking about different scenarios and I realised they were just going to attack me in the finale and there’s not much you can do,” Stannard said. “But I knew they’d have to ride hard coming into the finish as well. They haven’t won this race in a long time and it’s missing off Tom’s palmares as well, so I knew they’d commit to it.
Yet, some way, somehow, Stannard managed to pull off the most improbable of victories and claim his second successive Omloop win, after he shed both Vandenbergh and Boonen in the finale, and then disposed of Terpstra in the two-up sprint before the stunned masses in Sint-Pietersplein.
Stannard’s reputation has been built on his brute strength rather than his tactical acumen, – “I’m certainly not the smartest, but hopefully one of the stronger ones,” he joked afterwards – and he credited his surprise outflanking of Boonen et al to the circumstances of the day.
“I think everything aligned right for me to win the race,” he said, pointing to the fact that Sep Vanmarke’s determined pursuit behind kept the Etixx trio honest. Rather than try to attack Stannard one by one in the finale, they were put to the pin of their collars just to hold off the Vanmarcke group, while the Englishman was able to sit in the wheels.
Small wonder, then, that a resigned Boonen’s first, wry words to Stannard on the podium were: “It was a good team time trial, eh?”
“It was a hard situation, because there were guys behind chasing them. Maybe if the gap was a minute they could have played it more but I don’t know what more they could do really,” Stannard said. “I thought they were going to attack me pretty hard at the end but the group was only 20 seconds behind so they couldn’t really play too much and I could play poker on the back.”
Yet even at that, when Boonen climbed out of the saddle with a shade over four kilometres remaining, it looked to all the world like the winning attack. Certainly, the locals watching on the big screen at the finish in the heart of Ghent thought so, cheering raucously as their idol powered clear.
That excitement was tempered somewhat when Stannard pegged back Boonen and a frisson of tension passed through the crowds when he proceeded to track Terpstra’s follow-up attack. When Stannard launched an acceleration of his own inside the final three kilometres, there was a temporary, hushed silence.
“Tom tried to attack me and then I rode back to him. When you ride back up to a guy like that, you know your legs are pretty good,” Stannard said.
“I went over the top of him and then Niki came to me.”
The Flemish faithful found their voices again as Boonen desperately tried to get back on terms, but Stannard’s freshness was such that he could make no inroads into his deficit. Terpstra, meanwhile, stuck like a limpet to his rear wheel, but come the final two-up sprint, he found himself unable to summon up the strength to beat the Englishman.
“I was aware Tom was just behind and Niki went a bit early in the sprint,” Stannard said. “He just shielded me a little bit from the wind and I was able to go for it.”
The victory was Stannard’s second successive triumph at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad after he out-sprinted Greg Van Avermaet in ostensibly similar circumstances twelve months ago. The Essex native’s journey to that point was rather different this time around, however.
A fractured vertebra at Gent-Wevelgem ended his Classics campaign prematurely last year and he spent three months off the bike only to fracture his wrist at the Tour of Britain shortly after returning to action. His preparations for 2015 began before last season had even drawn to a close.
“I was off the bike for three months after I broke my back, and then I broke my wrist. It was a struggle because I couldn’t ride my bike, I put on a lot of weight and I got really unfit,” he said. “but I started my winter early while guys were still racing in Beijing.”
As is his habit, Stannard finished his build-up to new current season with a seven-week stint in Australia, culminating with the Tour Down Under. A solid outing at the Tour of Qatar confirmed his form and his place at the head of the Sky hierarchy for Omloop, and Bradley Wiggins served as a rather deluxe domestique ahead of the first major rendezvous on the Taaienberg.
“When the Tour de France champion is riding for you it makes you a bit stressed but the guys did a great job in positioning me,” Stannard said. “I didn’t have to try too hard and just ended up on the back of Etixx and off we went.”
As simple and as complicated as that.