1st March, the start of spring, which means one-day racing Belgian-style. Of course it’s only nominally spring – the difference between 28th February and 1st March – and so in becoming the first British rider to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Team Sky bruiser Ian Stannard had to contend with driving rain, tumbling temperatures and slippery cobbles.
After easing into the season watching sun kissed racing from the likes of the Tour Down Under and the Ruta del Sol, it’s quite a shock to the system to find yourself peering through the rain soaked TV cameras, watching a peloton full of hunched shoulders and gritted teeth, trying to pick out riders amongst a sea of muddy brown. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the first of the season’s cobbled classics, and so features sections of rutted and muddy tracks and rain-slicked cobbles, which means crashes…lots of crashes.
As someone who has never competed on the rain soaked roads of Belgium I can only surmise that it must take nerves of steel and some serious fire in the belly to race hard. A clipped wheel, and before you have chance to react you are sliding along the tarmac tearing clothing, bruising bones and drawing blood. A tight corner on slick cobbles, and if it’s not your day the bike just whips out from beneath you and delivers you to the deck. Even minding your own business in the bunch, as everyone fights for position you get that nervous ripple effect where one twitch or swerve has a knock on across the width of the group, ending with some poor soul cart-wheeling into a muddy ditch.
But days like this make reputations. Stannard has had good results in the one-day classics before and is known as a big strong engine – a guy who can string out the peloton in his wake or break away and stay clear. On this occasion he broke clear with BMC rider Greg van Avermaet, around 16 kilometres from the finish. Although they never built a big lead, Stannard seemed to be doing much of the work in dragging the pair of them into the last couple of kilometres, and keeping them far enough clear of the field to set up a two man sprint finish. As the quicker sprinter, the experts were saying, van Avermaet would surely win.
In fact, as he himself explained, “during the final, I was really cold…my body didn’t react anymore as I thought it would. If we did that sprint ten times, I would win nine times. In my head, I had already won the Omloop.”
With 300 metres to go, Stannard sat in his slipstream and picked his moment beautifully (when van Avermaet had looked the other way) and before you could say ‘cat-and-mouse’ he was 5 metres clear. On the slightly uphill run-in there was no catching him. As Stannard explained the finish, ‘I was quite confident once we got away. I could feel he wasn’t as strong as me. I think he panicked a little bit and put me in a really good position for the sprint”
In the post-race interview, with Stannard still caked in mud and grime, the local TV expert suggested that it was wet, yes, but at least it was not particularly cold. Stannard put him right in his polite English way, stopping just short of saying ‘it might not have been cold in your commentary box mate…!’