It’s been a good few weeks for Team Sky’s Ian Stannard. Last month crowned British national road race champion – the jersey will make its debut in the Tour de Pologne, which starts today – the 25-year-old has also been named in the Olympic road race team that will seek to help Mark Cavendish secure Great Britain’s first gold medal of London 2012. In an exclusive interview, we got his thoughts on the Olympics, the national championships and much, much more.
On 8 September 2008, a young cyclist slipped into an early break in Stage 4 of the Tour of Britain, which had begun in Milton Keynes, the town where he grew up. That escape was soon reeled in, but later in the stage, the 21-year-old attacked again, this time on his own, and spent 50 miles at the head of the race, alone. He’d be swept up before the finish in Newbury, where CSC’s Matt Goss won the sprint, but Ian Stannard, riding that day for Team Great Britain, had announced himself to the British public. He would go on to finish third overall.
Less than four years on, the Chelmsford-born rider is widely recognised as one of the hardest workers in the peloton, tirelessly putting in the kilometres on behalf of his Team Sky colleagues at races such as the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the Vuelta and the Giro d’Italia, as well as being part of the British team that helped Mark Cavendish win the rainbow jersey in Copenhagen last September.
There have been personal milestones, too; a podium place last year in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, where he finished third in appalling conditions, a maiden pro win in taking a stage of the Tour of Austria, fourth place in Paris-Tours, both of those results achieved in 2011 and, a little more than a fortnight ago, that national championship victory in Ampleforth, quickly followed by confirmation of his place at the Olympics.
It’s been a rapid rise through the ranks of the sport, and one that has seen Stannard tipped as a future Classics winner, but he attributes his progress to something that will surprise no-one familiar with his gritty, determined, riding style.
“I just got my head down, got on with it and worked as hard as I can, and the results have come,” he reveals. “I’ve got a bit of a reputation as you said as a domestique, so I just keep working at it and see how it goes.”
At times, when he’s shown on TV at the front of the peloton, perhaps riding to keep a break in check on a day when Mark Cavendish is targeting the sprint, it almost seems as though the Team Sky rider could be out for a training ride until the camera pans away and you see 180 or so riders following him. We put it to Stannard that it must sometimes make for lonely work.
“At the end of the day it’s a job to be done so you have to do it,” he says. “In the Giro this year, I didn’t see anyone for the first few days because I was always had the head of the race, either setting the tempo or being involved in it somehow, I didn’t really know apart from the ten guys who were around me who else was in the race. So it can be a bit lonely, but you’ve just got to get on with it, haven’t you?”
Getting on with it is something Stannard does supremely well, but it’s also a self-effacing understatement of the effort he puts in for his team mates, epitomised this year at Paris-Roubaix where he led the pursuit of an ultimately uncatchable Tom Boonen, with Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha and Mat Hayman going on to finish fourth and eighth, respectively. That race, plus the Tour of Flanders, were Stannard’s two highlights of the Spring Classics season
“I think the new Flanders route was pretty interesting, it was great to race, it brought some big crowds out,” he explains, “but I think for me I really enjoy racing Paris-Roubaix and there’s something great about that race.”
It’s a view a number of riders share, not least the now retired Roger Hammond who came so close to winning in 2004 when he finished third behind Magnus Backstedt and who secured several other top ten placings in the race that became almost an obsession for him.
Like Hammond and others, Stannard has an appreciation of the history of races such as Flanders or Roubaix that is so often an essential part of the cycling DNA of those who go on to add their names to the list of winners, and certainly his showing in the Classics in the past couple of years has led to many fans believing that he can go on to write his name into those races’ history too.
“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,” he maintains, adding, “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.
“So for now, I just ride for the team and learn it and help them out as much as I can, we’ve got some really strong guys in our team.”
His immediate priority, however, is the Tour de Pologne, which gets under way today, and where he rides alongside Flecha, Hayman, the Colombian pair Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Urán, Lars-Petter Nordhaug, and fellow British riders Alex Dowsett and Ben Swift.
“It’s my last race before the Olympics so I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in there and seeing how it’s going,” says Stannard, but that’s not the only reason he’s keen to get on the road – “it’s also my first race in the national jersey so that’s also pretty exciting,” he adds.
Of Team Sky’s plans for the week-long tour, he states: “We’ve got a few climbers going there, it’s not a mountainous race, but there’s one day that is really tough, lots of ups and downs, so hopefully they can shine there and we’ll do everything to support them.
“There’s a few sprint type days as well and I think Swifty is going to be up for them, so that will be about supporting him, then I think there is one day where there is the possibility of a breakaway going because that’s how the race is laid out, so hopefully I can try and get away there and see what I can do myself,” he adds.
Stannard becomes the third Team Sky rider in as many years to wear the national champions’ jersey, following Geraint Thomas in 2010/11 and Bradley Wiggins for the past 12 months. On both those previous occasions, the team got a clean sweep of the podium, Stannard himself finishing third last year, this year Raleigh’s Russell Hampton finished third after getting in a break with the eventual winner and Alex Dowsett, before the new champion rode off alone to victory.
In part, Team Sky’s dominance is due to the form honed by its riders as a result of the level they are racing at week-in, week-out, which men from the top domestic teams are always going to struggle to match, but it’s evident that it’s also a badge of honour for the British ProTeam to have one of its number wearing the national champion’s jersey at some of the sport’s biggest races.
“It’s supposed to be an individual that wins it and we just look to get as many guys to the front as we can,” says Stannard. “We’ve probably done that every year to look at having the jersey in the team rather than one specific rider, we just ride hard and it breaks it down, and in the last three years there’s only been Sky riders left, so that’s been good.”
The white jersey with its red and blue bands won’t be the only addition to Stannard’s racing wardrobe this month; there will also be an appointment at Team GB’s Olympic preparation facility at Loughborough to pick up the Stella McCartney-designed kit he and his team mates will wear a fortnight Saturday in the Olympic road race.
“I’m looking forward to getting that kit,” he admits. “It’s really great and it will be quite a special kit to get hold of. I’ll be wearing it with pride.”
The new kit, a departure from the red white and blue that Stannard wore as he helped Cavendish win the rainbow jersey last autumn, isn’t the only difference between that race and the one in the Olympics; smaller teams make the task of managing the race far more difficult than was the case in Denmark, when Great Britain had a team of eight.
“Obviously you’ve only got five riders there and one of them is going for the win, so that only leaves four riders to control the race,” he says. “It’s not easy, it’s going to be very, very hard, and it’s a long distance as well. So you’ve got to hope that other nations like Germany with Greipel will have the same interests.
“We can’t ride it in the fashion that we did at Copenhagen, that’s for sure, we’ve got to be a bit more clever about it and ride really smart, I think,” Stannard goes on. “With the course as well, it’s quite selective and the race will break itself down a bit and hopefully we can help influence it in the way we want it to go.”
An added complication is that as in the world championships, but unlike in the Classics or the Grand Tours, race radios aren’t allowed, but despite his likely role as one of the riders who will set the tempo to keep any breaks in check, Stannard does not believe that poses too much of a problem.
“We’ve all raced at a high level and we all know how to do it, you still get time checks and stuff, but you obviously don’t let that break go as far as you would maybe with radios, and you’re not always 100 per cent sure who is in it, whereas with radios the director would tell you who’s there.
“So it’s more difficult but it doesn’t change the racing a huge amount, it’s just about talking to each other, staying close together, and being around each other so you can make decisions a lot more easily,” he adds.
Beyond the Olympics, there remain other targets for the season, as Stannard explains.
“I’ve got the Tour of Britain, I think, and then beyond that Paris-Bourges and Paris-Tours at the end of the year as well.”
Last year, Stannard finished fourth in the latter, and he says: “It would be nice to do a repeat performance of that or maybe even go better, and with the Tour of Britain, I haven’t raced it for a long time because I’ve done the Vuelta instead.
“So I’m looking forward to racing in front of home crowds, which is always nice, especially with the jersey now, and I got third in it in 2008, so it would be good if I could improve on that, definitely.”
While Stannard is reaping the rewards from the hard work he puts into his sport, what little downtime he has is mainly spent resting at his home in Manchester, a location popular with riders not only because of the city being home to British Cycling, but also because of the easy access to hilly terrain for training.
“It kind of takes up a hell of a lot of time, being a professional bike rider,” he reflects when asked what he does away from the bike. “It’s about chilling out and not doing too much, a lot of it is making sure you recover from your training sessions so you can train again the next day, there’s a lot of sitting around and not doing a huge amount. So I don’t have time to do much, whether it’s going out for something to eat or going the cinema, watching movies,” he confesses.
Speaking after a weekend on which Chris Froome won a Tour de France stage on La Planche des Belles Filles and Bradley Wiggins moved into the maillot jaune, but ahead of the pair’s dominant performance in yesterday’s individual time trial, Stannard unsurprisingly agrees that spirits are running pretty high within Team Sky at the moment.
“I think for the whole year the team’s being going really well, we had two really good camps in December and January where everyone really knuckled down and worked hard and it’s inspired the momentum for the whole year.
“Obviously Brad’s been working really hard to start achieving what he has and it’s great to see him in that yellow jersey now at the Tour, and knowing how much work he’s put into it makes it even better.”
It’s may be an old sporting cliché that nothing breeds success like success, but in this case it’s an entirely valid one.
“There’s a real buzz around the team and I think once you start winning it kind of snowballs along,” he points out.
But success is also built on hard work, and by that measure Stannard has made every bit as important a contribution to Team Sky’s progress as have more lauded colleagues such as Wiggins, Thomas, Edvald Boasson Hagen and, from this season, Cavendish.
We can’t be alone in feeling that it won’t be too long before he is joining them in taking to the podium in his own right more regularly, and we suspect that like Thomas and Wiggins before him, he’ll do the national jersey proud.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.