Long recognised as one of the peloton’s strongmen, Ian Stannard (Sky) married poise to that power when he outmanoeuvred Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) in the two-up sprint that decided Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
The pair had escaped with 17 kilometres to go, and they quickly formed a smooth working alliance on the run-in through the flatlands of East Flanders. As the towers of Ghent drew nearer and the chasers fell away, however, their coalition began to crumble, and a tentative approach to the finish line at Sint-Pietersplein ensued.
“I was quite confident once we got away. I could feel he wasn’t as strong as me,” Stannard said. “I knew there were three guys chasing us, they were ten seconds back at one point but coming into the last kilometre I could see they had dropped away.”
Inside the final kilometre, Stannard managed to usher Van Avermaet into first position, but even from that situation, the Belgian would have expected to win in a sprint. Indeed, BMC manager Allan Peiper insisted afterwards that his rider had not made any errors in the finale, but pointed out that a sprint after 200 kilometres across cobbles and hills on a drab and wet Flemish day is as much about energy as it is about pure speed.
“I think he panicked a little bit and put me in a really good position for the sprint,” Stannard said. “I knew at 300 metres I needed it wind it up a bit but not super fast. It worked out well: it was a bit uphill as well so I was able to get a gap. I was just waiting for him to look the other way and then hit him hard at that mark. I got the gap and it worked out well.”
Stannard crossed the line without raising his arms but it was not because he was overwhelmed by his achievement. “No, I just wanted to make sure I got across the line first,” he laughed. “I was a bit cold and I didn’t want to sit up and put my arms up and have Greg come around me. I just wanted to get across the line, that was the priority.”
A third place finisher in the Hurricane Xynthia-hit Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne of 2010 and one of the chief animators of the snow-interrupted Milan-San Remo of last year, Stannard has the reputation of a rider who performs at his best in the wet and cold.
“I’ve got a bit of a habit for it,” he admitted. “It’s tough. When everyone wakes up and sees it’s raining, that can be a downer on morale. But you’ve to get on with it. You’ve got to be in front and stay aware, because it’s easy to mess up on cobbles”
Stannard was certainly an enthusiastic presence in Saturday’s race. The climb of the Taaienberg, with 60 kilometres to race, signals the beginning of Omloop’s endgame, and he outlined his intentions for the day by bounding over the summit in pursuit of Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin).
The main peloton was shattered on the Taaienberg, and from there on in, the front groups were constantly fracturing and re-forming, but Stannard remained a constant presence. He closed gaps when needed and benefitted, too, from the work of teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen, who escaped with Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Lars Boom (Belkin) with 30 kilometres to go.
A puncture for Boom ultimately led to the recapture of Boasson Hagen and Terpstra, and shortly after they were caught, Stannard seized his opportunity, powering away with only Van Avermaet for company.
“They’re just hard, aren’t they? They suit me for one, they’re normally hard races in hard weather and I enjoy the hell out of them,” Stannard said of his love of the cobbles. “Banging around Flemish roads is fun.”
Sky have struggled to replicate their stage racing success of recent seasons in the spring classics, and Stannard’s win is their first on the cobbles since Juan Antonio Flecha won Omloop in the team’s debut campaign in 2010.
The team’s collective performance here – Edvald Boasson nabbed third place from Vanmarcke and Terpstra, while Luke Rowe finished 11th – is encouraging, though Stannard was quick to note that April is still some way off.
“There’s a lot of racing coming up first but I’d like to perform at Paris-Roubaix,” he said. “This is a stepping stone.”