When the 27-year-old Ian Stannard (Team Sky), drenched to the bone, face caked in dirt, pipped Greg Van Avermaet to the line at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, it seemed like a seminal moment in his career. Here was a man who was throwing off the lingering tag as the hardy workhorse and showing himself to be a rider who wins big bike races. It was the first Classic of the season, and there was genuine excitement about what he might go on to achieve.
But the anticipation was crushed and momentum cruelly halted when he came down less than a month later at Gent-Wevelgem, with a fractured vertebra ruling out the rest of his one-day calendar.
"It was really tough at the time," he tells Cyclingnews. "It was a bit of a breakthrough and proved what I could do. It was good for the confidence and I really felt like I had made a step forward. I had learned more about the races, become stronger, and put myself in a position where I could start challenging for wins in those kinds of races. Then to fall off like that and finish it was really hard on the head."
There was a further setback when he crashed on his comeback ride in the Tour of Britain which resulted in a broken scaphoid and ended his season. This, though, is a new year and a new start. With just a couple of days to go until Het Nieuwsblad kicks off the Classics once again on Saturday, the man nicknamed Yogi is back where he wants to be and eager to pick up where he left off.
"I feel capable of going for the win [at Het Nieuwsblad]," he says. "I expect myself to be back racing the Classics as hard as I can and doing as well as I can. You can never say you expect yourself to win, but I want to be up at the front putting myself in a position to win - I kind of expect that from myself."
Back to racing
Stannard's ambition comes from his belief that he is back at the level he was at this time last year. Injury forced him into a long block of winter training, which he has built on with some confidence-boosting early-season racing. Fifth in the time trial and fourth overall at the Tour of Qatar earlier in the month certainly augurs well.
"Qatar went well. I was a little bit unsure after my crash last year just how the legs would be, but it went really well, especially that time trial. When you're racing a road stage you can duck and dive and get through it but to be up there in the time trial as well was really positive for my head.
"From being on that hospital bed with a broken back to being back racing hard in Qatar and where I am now, I'm very happy with how it's all gone."
Physically, it seems Stannard has made a full recovery from the crashes and, although he claims to have shaken off their psychological burden, he admits it wasn't without difficulty.
"To be honest, at the start at the Tour Down Under, I was a little bit wary of fighting," he says. "Even when riding in the bunch, at every noise I was a bit like 'ah Jesus Christ what's that?' But Qatar soon knocked that out of me and now, moving into the races where I really want to perform, it's the last thing that's on my mind."
No defined leaders
Stannard is part of an eight-man Sky team for Het Nieuwsblad, which includes Bradley Wiggins, who has his sights firmly set on Paris-Roubaix in April before he leaves the team for his new WIGGINS outfit. Wiggins' past leadership issues with Chris Froome are well documented, and there is certainly scope for shades of those issues to resurface in the one-day set-up.
"I'm sure Brad's going there looking to race well and show his hand as well," says Stannard, who insists the team hasn't mapped out a detailed plan for Het Nieuwsblad. He also notes that leadership is a much less clearly defined concept in one-day races, which are by nature more chaotic and changeable.
"There's a lot of luck in these races - you can't guarantee you're going to be there at the end. It's just about communicating with each other, getting through that first half of the race as easy as we can, then having numbers at the end."
It is unclear whether Wiggins will be racing to win on Saturday or to ride in more general preparation for Paris-Roubaix, and it is there where the leadership issues have more potential to flare up. Rod Ellingworth, Sky's head of performance operations, recently told Cyclingnews that leadership for Paris-Roubaix was guaranteed to no one.
Wiggins has made no secret of his desire to win that most prestigious of Classics, but that hasn't caused Stannard to shy away from setting out his own ambitions. "Roubaix is definitely one I want to challenge for and I expect myself to be up there this year," he asserts. "Especially after missing it last year – that's a bit of a sore point in my head and I want to make up for that. I'm going to be there to race hard for sure."
Stannard's capacity for racing 'hard' has never been in question. What was thrown into question last year was whether he had become a rider who could consistently mix it with the best in one-day races, and win. Circumstances denied him the opportunity to provide a definitive answer. He has that chance now. Saturday signals the start of a potentially defining few months, in which we might see just what Stannard is capable of.