When Ian Stannard rolled to a halt outside the Sky team bus after Dwars door Vlaanderen, he described his performance to directeur sportif Servais Knaven with a flip of the hand and a shrug. "I was just that little bit out of position," he said, more as a statement of fact than of regret. For a man who dreams of Paris-Roubaix, the Waregem race is as much a test site as an objective.
After an untimely puncture just ahead of the Oude Kwaremont, Stannard managed to battle back on and then set the tempo at the front of the main bunch on the climb itself, but he was ultimately unable to follow when Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) launched the winning move over the summit of the following Paterberg.
Stannard finished the day in 15th place, part of the large chasing group that came home 17 seconds down on Terpstra. "It was alright, it wasn't too hard of a race, you could tell that from the size of the group at the end and everyone was still quite fresh," Stannard told Cyclingnews. "But when Niki got away, people really couldn't decide whether to chase and then how hard to chase, and that was it."
As a non-WorldTour race, radio earpieces are not permitted at Dwars door Vlaanderen, but while the delay in relaying time gaps and the lack of immediate direction from the team cars behind arguably helped Terpstra to open out his advantage initially, Stannard felt that it was Omega Pharma-QuickStep's policing of the chasing group that allowed the Dutchman to stay out in front.
"When you had so many QuickStep guys there, everybody knew that if you pulled it back another one of them would attack," he explained. Indeed, the finale's one concerted chase group, which included Stijn Devolder and Alejandro Valverde, was doomed by the marking of Gert Steegmans.
Skipping San Remo
Considering his recent form, Stannard was something of a surprise omission from Sky's team for Milan-San Remo at the weekend, but he explained that in spite of his strong showing at La Classicissima last season, his emphasis in 2014 is squarely on the cobbled Classics.
"It's always difficult because it's such a big block of racing around here," he said. "If I'd raced in San Remo, then I probably wouldn't have raced today and I certainly wouldn't have been great today, so it's about getting it right. I preferred to come to Belgium and do this race, to try and familiarise myself with the roads again."
After enduring unflattering comparisons to the team's stage racing success over the past three seasons, Sky's Classics unit has begun 2014 strongly. Stannard himself claimed a fine victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, while Ben Swift took third place at Milan-San Remo at the weekend, but the final assessment of their campaign will be weighted heavily by events at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
"I wanted to try and come here and do well, but it wasn't really tough enough so I'm a bit disappointed," Stannard said of his outing in Waregem. "But I felt good, so there are good signs."
Sky opted to withhold Geraint Thomas and Bernhard Eisel from Dwars door Vlaanderen in order to allow them an extra two days of recovery following Milan-San Remo, but the pair will return to the line-up alongside Stannard in time for the two WorldTour races later in the week.
"Gent-Wevelgem's usually a bunch sprint, whereas Harelbeke's obviously a lot harder a race and we've got a strong team for that," Stannard said. "Hopefully we'll be able to do something there."
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