Britain’s Ian Stannard (Sky Pro Cycling), the two-time winner of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, is the toughest pro cyclist racing right now. He showed that last week when he didn’t just win Belgium’s classics season opener after an injury-hit 2014 but also impressed the cycling world with fearsome power and tactical cunning.
Stannard laid waste no fewer than three strong men from the same team — the Etixx-QuickStep trio of Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, and Stijn Vandenbergh. It was one of the most thrilling finishes we’ve seen.
Before Stannard flew to Italy on Friday to race in this weekend’s Strade-Bianche, peloton caught up with him to talk about his big repeat win and the coming classics. Following is an excerpt from that conversation.
Ian Stannard: Last year was a bit of a breakthrough for me. The team put some faith in me, and I was the sole leader for the race, so it was nice to perform and show what I can do. It felt like a bit of a steppingstone. Things started to take off a little bit.
Then, obviously, it all came to a crashing end in that ditch: It was a hard time. To win it this year was pretty awesome. You know, I was stressed out going into it, being the defending champion and also wanting to prove myself, that I was back at the level I was last year before I crashed. It was tough.
When I got away with them three, I was like, ‘Bloody hell — this is great.’ It was more than I could’ve expected, really. I wanted to go there and race hard and race well, and show where I was at. But I didn’t expect to win it, to be honest. I’m super happy to have done it.
I was thinking ‘Oh, hell!’ when I came across the line.
Did you ever think for a moment you wouldn’t win?
Once I got away with them, about 40 k to go, we went up the Leberg: Niki Terpstra put the hammer down, and there was a little bit of crosswinds at the top, so I went through expecting at least 10, 15 guys to be left, and then I was like, ‘Oh, crap, three Etixx guys!’
Like, ‘What am I going to do now?’ [Laughs] Obviously, I wasn’t going to ride with them, so they pretty much paced me to the end. I couldn’t believe my luck.
We went across the Lange Munte, the last cobbled section, and there were crosswinds. They didn’t even put me in the gutter, so I couldn’t quite believe my luck.
And then I could sense they were starting to die: Their kicks were not quite as strong out of the corners, and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ve got a chance to run second or third.’ But with Tom Boonen there, a quick sprinter, I thought they’d take him to the line and lead him out.
So I was quite surprised when he attacked me: I was expecting the others to attack me. I was surprised to see him be the first to go.
And once you ride back to a guy like that — you know, how many times he’s won Roubaix and Flanders. He is the best classics rider, with Fabian Cancellara. To ride back to a guy like that, at the end of a hard 200 k race, I couldn’t believe it.
You know, I knew I had a really good chance, and I knew I had to attack them and play it right. We were going up about a k and a half to go, and Tom was only about five seconds off the back of us, and unless he sat on me, I was like, ‘Ugh, jeez: I’m going to have to ride for second here, because if Tom comes back, who knows what I am going to get. I’m not going to win it.’
And then Niki came over the top of me about 300 to go and led me out, and again I couldn’t believe my luck. I was like, ‘Jesus!’ It all kind of aligned. And it doesn’t matter how many times you could go through that finish again: I’d probably never win it but that one time, and it all worked out.
When you’re in that situation, is it more psychological or instinctual, or both?
That whole 40 k or so, I was like, ‘They’re going to attack me at some point.’ I was surprised they took me so close to the finish before they started attacking me. But then again they had those other guys chasing, so they couldn’t muck about too much either. I was worrying up in my head about how I’d do it.
You know, you just get on it, and gas up to them as fast as possible as you pace your way up, and then once the attack actually happens, I think instinct kind of took over.
I just took my time over it a little bit. I didn’t want to put myself in the red. I saw it as getting a bit further to the line without another attack, and keeping myself, like, ‘OK, you’re not fresh, but you’re not in the red, you’re not building up too much lactate as well.’ So I could respond to the next attack as soon as it came over the top of me.
Whereas I think if I had gone charging after him — big sprint, you know — just over a thousand watts or whatever, and then you’re in the red and you’ve got lactate and you can’t respond to the next one quite as quickly. So that was kind of my plan about it, and it all worked out, which is pretty cool.
What other race do you want to win this season?
I’d love to win Roubaix, to be honest.
Will Sky make you a protected rider at Paris-Roubaix?
That’s a good question, isn’t it? I don’t know, to be honest. It depends. A lot of things can change between today and Roubaix — what’s it, six weeks away? You know, we’ve got Tirreno-Adriatico ahead and that’s quite a big block and intense work for all the classics riders. You know, some do Paris-Nice, some do Tirreno. A lot of guys then do Sanremo, and then you’re into the real thick of the action. You can do some efforts to try and sharpen up a bit, but you’re generally there then.
You know, people fall off. There’s all sorts of problems. People get ill. Yeah, I’d like to be team leader for them races, but you just don’t know at the moment.
How does that work out as your teammate Bradley Wiggins is targeting Roubaix too? Will Sky offer two-man protection?
You know, it’s always a funny race. There’s a lot of luck in it. You can’t limit your options by just having one guy. You get through Arenberg, assess the situation, and see how many guys you got in the front, how many you haven’t, and what’s happening with the rest of the race. It’s a tough race on the riders and the equipment, and you can’t go there with just one guy.
Watch the final 10 kilometers of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad below: