Ian Stannard, Team Sky and the hurt box

Ian Stannard Team Sky 2012 road race championship

Ian Stannard on his way to winning the 2012 road title

How many wins would it take to make Ian Stannard of Team Sky claim leadership status at the team?

Ian Stannard of Team Sky has been victorious in races that some riders would retire happy on having won them. Most recently, there was a dominant, bold stage win in the 2016 Tour of Britain at Tatton Park. Might this and his other successes have woken dormant ambitions in Team Sky’s affable Essex character? We spoke to Stannard at the start of the 2016 season to find out.

Every single bike rider on a World Tour team has won a bike race. At some point in their career as racing cyclists, they have crossed a finish line first, sprayed champagne and kissed a podium girl. You don’t get a contract as a World Tour pro unless you were pretty handy as an amateur.

Then, after a couple of years riding at the top level, riders tend to find their own ‘level,’ working out what they are best at, calculating what will keep them happy and in employment as professional riders.

For most pros, the role of helper rather than winner is the one they opt for, coming to terms with their physical and psychological limitations, and carving their niche inside the peloton. Personal ambitions (or pure sporting fantasies) are put to bed, tucked up and repressed. But those dreams still lurk and in some riders they burst into daylight every now and then.

Other frustrated souls struggle to accept their lot and become serial team flirts, moving from squad to squad looking for a set-up that will enable them to exploit what talent they believe they have. Alternatively, after years in the service of others, some riders take a step down to a smaller team wondering whether if they had the backing, they could get the win.

Where, then, does Team Sky stalwart Ian Stannard fit in to this picture? He’s a two-time winner of Het Nieuwsblad, the 2012 national road race champion and has been in the finale of more than his fair share of monumental Classics. With that evidence of talent and a peppering of good wins as well as increasingly strong performances, how does Stannard juggle his team responsibilities and keep those winning desires at bay? At 28, with six years as a World Tour pro behind him, is it time for him to put his hand up and say, ‘I think I’ve got the legs for this today’?

“Ah.” Stannard pauses.
“Hmm.” Another pause.
“That’s a good question.”
And then the killer answer, which comes with a laugh. “I dunno really. The thing is that I always enjoyed those Belgian races when I was younger and at the start, riding for a guy like (Juan Antonio) Flecha, I was pretty excited to be riding for him. At some point you start thinking, ‘Oh one day I’d love to have a go at racing this for myself’ but you need to piece all the bits together to achieve that.”
There’s a short pause.
“And getting the opportunity to do that, because that’s such a big thing and in a strong team like ours it’s not easy to get that chance,” adds Stannard.

The problem is that at some point, a rider needs to metaphorically push his way to the front of the team in the same way that he has literally to barge his way to the front of the peloton as it approaches the first cobbled climbs in Flanders. “Yeah, you know, it’s quite hard to put your hand up before those races and say that you want to be the leader and it’s probably my downfall a little bit as well, you know? I haven’t got the balls to really stick my neck out there all the time and go, ‘I want to lead this race’ because I’m quite happy playing that support role, especially when you get into the stage races.”

Ian Stannard stage 2 Tour of Britain 2016

Ian Stannard: front of the bunch, as usual

With all the talk of hurt lockers and pain caves, there’s another zone that riders get to know – it’s the comfort zone. “It’s difficult, absolutely. When I was young and when I first turned pro I was like ‘Yeah! I wanna go out and win these races and be in the final!’ and then at a team like Sky you end up riding on the front a lot and you sort of settle into that role of being one of those guys who just rides on the front and you almost lose a little bit of confidence that you can finish a race off. But if your role is to ride on the front, then it’s easy to settle for just playing that role, especially if you are good at it.”

Let’s not beat about the bush here, winning big bike races is neither easy nor predictable. There are around 200 starters in races and there’s only one winner. Those are poor odds, among the very worst in professional sport (consider tennis, it’s either you or him, not you or 199 other guys) so the self-belief required to lead a team isn’t easy to acquire.

“When you go out to actually win a race and you’ve got guys supporting you, you don’t want to let them down and it’s a totally different scenario. At Nieuwsblad I was just given the opportunity, both years, and I performed in it both times. When we go into Flanders and Roubaix there are a few leaders – rightly so – like G (Geraint Thomas) could have gone well in Flanders — he has gone well in Flanders — and he could have gone better with a bit of luck. But for me, it’s about knowing your place and where you fit in to the team as well.”

It seems a little cruel, when someone has as good a hit rate in those races that he has been ‘the chosen one’ in has not had a little more consideration. He has delivered winning performances, what more would you need to do? “Hmm, yeah, it’s a tricky question, maybe I haven’t impressed the right people,” he laughs.

“In cycling, especially at World Tour level, you have to put your personal ambitions to the side and ride for the team. And doing that – riding hard on the front of the bunch – is something I find quite easy. I enjoy putting people in the hurt box and when you hear on the radio that people are suffering or you are riding on the front up a climb and there are some smaller, lighter guys going out the back, I have that ‘Right, let’s ‘ave it!’ thought in my head. And I love that,” chortles the six-foot-two-and-a-half inch man of Essex. “Don’t get me wrong though, I love winning bike races as well, but the role I’ve become accustomed too and the one I find a bit easier is that domestique kind of role.”

It’s at this point that Stannard fans will wonder why a rider of Classic talent appears happy with his role as ‘Punisher’ in the peloton, as a rider who can reliably be counted on when there’s a need to string the bunch out.

“I think a lot of people still struggle to understand what a domestique really does,” explains Stannard, patiently. “Certainly for Luke (Rowe) and I, a lot of our job during the Tour de France is done before the race comes on the TV,” he laughs. “It’s like some days the TV coverage will start, people see you at the front of the bunch for about five kilometres and then you drop off and they wonder if that’s it, if that’s all you did, you know? They don’t see what you had to do in the earlier part of the stage, to make sure the break with the right combination of riders went clear, going back to get bottles, then riding on the front, maybe the leader stops for a piss and you’ve got to pace then back up to the front. People just don’t see that or appreciate that it takes a bit of effort, you know? Sometimes riding on the front can be hard and trying to give your leader that armchair ride to the finish means that quite often your day can be harder than theirs – certainly in terms of the number of kilometres they spend in the wind. They might only do one kilometre! And it’s probably uphill as well, they’re not ploughing into a 40kph headwind!”

Again, Stannard laughs, as he does a lot, and his comments shouldn’t be read as a rider bitching about his role, rather they’re the observations of a rider who takes pride in doing his job well.

Stannard beat Greg van Avermaet to win Het Nieuwsblad in 2014

Stannard beat Greg van Avermaet to win Het Nieuwsblad in 2014

Yet still, the question remains, he’s won some proper races – doesn’t he worry that he has settled for his role as helper too quickly? How, in fact, did he come to win Het Nieuwsblad? “Well, there was a bit more space for me in the team that day because ‘G’ wasn’t there so it opened up an opportunity and I had been saying to the team through the winter that I really want to have a go at those race see what I can I do, to show what I can do.” And what, after 200 kilometres, 11 Flandrian climbs and ten sectors of cobbles in a loop around Gent, he did do.

As you might imagine at Team Sky, the decision to give one or other rider ‘the nod’ as team leader on a race, is not one that is taken lightly. It is not simply the sport director who mulls over the start list in the bar the night before the race and announces ‘X’ as the anointed one. At Sky, the decision is based on information from coaches, senior management and sport directors as well as, obviously, the desires of riders. “Yeah, certainly at Sky they have a big conversation about it, some long phone calls and they decided the best strategy on that – and I got the nod.”

Reflecting on his wins – and the National road race title in 2012 on a decidedly ‘grippy’ course at the edge of the North York moors should not be overlooked — as well as strong rides in the finale of Milan-San Remo, it could be argued that Stannard has shown signs of ability that merit more consideration in those management conference calls in the Sky team bus.

“Yeah, but I think I’ve still got to piece it together a bit more and I know that I’m capable of it, it’s just putting those bits together consistently and then also just putting your hand up and saying, ‘This is my turn, this is what I want to do,’ which is my probably my biggest downfall to be fair.”

Given the culture of analysis at Team Sky, had Stannard sat down and taken a seat and had a think about what he might be lacking? “Hmm. I’m still finding out, to be honest. Maybe I spend too much energy early in the race, maybe my position in the bunch isn’t quite good enough..just…I think the legs are good enough and the knowledge of the roads is there…but… it’s just…” Stannard lets out a sigh and raises his eyebrows.

When offered the get-out clause of ‘maybe a little luck is required’ he bats it away. “Yeah, that’s true, there is always some luck involved when it comes to something like punctures, but then you look at guys like Boonen and Cancellara, they really make their own luck and when you watch them race you think ‘Wow, those guys have something’ you realise why between them they have won so many massive races.”

Ian Stannard Team Sky Congleton Tour of Britain 2016

The curse of the selfie…

At 28, Stannard is about to enter the best years of his career, physiologically speaking, and with Boonen and Cancellara approaching the end of theirs, there are two less hitters on the start list to worry about. Additionally, inside Team Sky, the news that Geraint Thomas has spoken about focusing more on stage races than Classics means that Stannard might find a bit more wiggle room on the cobbles.

“Yeah, hopefully that move will create a little more space for me in the Classics next year and it will give me more opportunities for sure, but then Luke (Rowe) is stepping up as well, although I think we can bounce off each other and I think we’ll ride well together. We haven’t all sat down and discussed it yet (speaking in early December – KP.) but it’s the sort of thing that can be worked out nearer the time – I’ve got to get fit first! I’m ready to put my hand up and go for it, for sure,” notes Stannard.

Being the pro that he is and seeing things from that unique, inside-the-bus perspective, Stannard also sees some risk in the off-season shuffling. “I think that Geraint moving his focus – and with Bernie (Eisel) leaving – that’s really going to change the dynamics of the team and leaves us a lot more exposed during the Classics, we’ve lost a little bit of strength in depth there.”

Throughout all the media flap generated by Mark Cavendish joining MTN/Dimension Data, the fact that 34-year-old Austrian Bernhard Eisel had also left Sky to join the African squad was considered a mere footnote. Not for Stannard. “Losing Bernie is a big deal for the Classics team and the team in general,” states Stannard, suddenly serious.

“It’s a massive loss when you consider the knowledge that he’s got, god knows how long he’s been a pro, it seems like forever, but the knowledge of the races he has and even if you know them yourself, it was always good to check them with Bernie, he knows how things run, how it goes and he’s got more of a level head because we’re a little bit younger and we’re all ready, saying ‘OK! Right! Let’s go for it!’ and Bernie will be like ‘Woah, guys, there are still 100km to go!’ but we’re still all going ‘Nah, who cares! Come on, let’s go!’ and it will be Bernie shouting at us to stop.”

Eisel’s departure means there’s a big Bernie-shaped hole to fill. Who’s going to calm down young Rowe? Who’s going to tell Stannard that attacking 100km from the line might not be ideal, no matter how good he feels. Or maybe he should just go for it – in every sense.