Ian Stannard showed that he's a classics winner in the making with an impressive show of force and power in the Dwars door Vlaanderen this week. But his futile attacks exposed a tactical naivety, leaving him to finish a disappointing 9th place.
I watched the race with fascination. Team Sky had the numbers on their side, two riders in the break. But they couldn't convert that advantage into a victory. But it was Stannard's display of power that I was taken by. I was reminded by Stannard’s efforts of Fabian Cancellara’s favoured method of winning bike races: effortlessly riding away from his rivals and soloing to the finish. Whether it’s 5km or 40km out from the finish.
Cancellara first demonstrated his signature move on stage 3 of the 2007 Tour de France into Compiègne. He then repeated it, but from further out from the finish, in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in 2010. Since those victories however, the peloton have given him little rope, and his success rate has dropped off significantly and his frustration has risen. Spartacus hasn't given up though, even tried trademark move in this weekeend' Milan-San Remo, to little avail. He finished third.
In the same way, Stannard is at risk of making himself a marked man. He has shown he's dangerously powerful but in showing his form so eagerly, the peloton are going to keep an eye on him. It worked so successfully for Cancellara because of the suprise of his attack and power. Stannard hasn't successfully deployed his power as effectively. The ouctome of Dwars door Vlaanderen could have been so different, and we would now be toasting a British classics winner.
He's a classics winner in the making though. In that race, and 6th at Milan-San Remo, he showed he's not afraid to get serious when the conditions deteriorate. He first showed this in 2010 where he finished 3rd in a wet edition of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. He excels in really filthy weather. In fact it’s fair to say he probably looks forward to pulling back the curtains on race morning to reveal torrential rain and cold winds. This year's Milan-San Remo was run in horrific conditions, but Stannard looked to be right at home. Such weather is a variable that seems to favour him more than others.
In recent years, we’ve come to expect nothing but victorious riding from Team Sky. Their ability to control a race is commendable, but while it works brilliantly in a stage race, the same approach just doesn’t work in a one day classic. A stage race can be controlled by the numbers, there's a rythm to the race. But so much can happen in a one day race, too many variables to account for and too little time to put wrong errors of judgement or mistakes. Or a puncture. Team Sky’s desire to follow a carefully prescribed plan and ride by the numbers, simply doesn’t work here.
One day racing is fast and the changes faster still. In a one day race like Flanders or Paris-Roubaix the riders can’t rely on instructions relayed from the comfort of the team car. A rider needs to be able to read the road, the cobbles, the rapidly changing dynamics of the race and the composition of the group around him. The racing is fast and hectic, crazy and dangerous, and that calls for an ability to make quick decisions.
It must be said that Sky have enjoyed limited success in the classics. Hayman and Flecha finishing top ten at Roubaix last year, and Geraint Thomas and Flecha finishing top ten in Flanders in 2011. On the back of those races, Sir Dave Brailsford has declared an interest in winning one of the big classics. At early season training camps the squad has been split into grand tour and classics teams, and the classics riders have been working towards these races as their explicit goal. Team Sky are serious about winning a classic and given their past record few would argue against them ticking that box.
Crucially, Stannard isn’t a designated team leader, not yet anyway. He’s still a working rider for protected riders in the team, like Geraint Thomas at Milan-San Remo. In classics terms, Stannard could be considered to be in the same position Chris Froome when he finished second at the Vuelta a España in 2011. That’s when the Sky management sat up and took notice of Froome, and turned him into a team leader. He's on a learning curve.
Stannard is young at 25-years-old. But then Cancellara was just 25 when he won Tour of Flanders in 2006. A win in one of the big races is asking a lot of Stannard, but his current form shows he clearly has the power. In demonstrating his prowess in these races, Stannard is sending a clear message to the management of his team. He no longer wants to pull his team along, he wants to raise his arms in the air and put his name in the record books.
In an interview with road.cc last year, Stannard commented: “I believe I can achieve it and I really want to achieve it but I’ve got a long way to go before I get anywhere near that. You’ve really got to learn the races and study them and almost become one with them, so yes, I’ve got a long way to go.”
He's displayed his physical strength. He now just needs to display a tactical strength, and a classics win will surely be his. If not this year, but in the years to come.
David worked on the road.cc tech team from 2012-2020. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes.