Comment: Could Ian Stannard end the British search for a new cobbled Classic winner?
Yogi reignites hopes of success at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix
Ian Stannard (Team Sky) took another step towards ending British cycling’s long wait for a cobbled Monument winner with a superb display of grit, resilience and tactical nous to win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday.
Tom Simpson’s Tour of Flanders win in 1961 remains the only time a Briton has topped the podium at either the Ronde or Paris-Roubaix, but Stannard proved, once again, he could be the man to end the barren run.
Victory last year, after a gutsy attack with Greg van Avermaet and a well-timed sprint for the line, firmly established Stannard as a Classics contender, but the 27-year-old suffered a fractured vertebrae after crashing into a ditch at Ghent-Wevelgem to effectively end his season, returning only for the RideLondon-Surrey Classics, Eneco Tour and a single stage of the Tour of Briton.
However, the rider nicknamed Yogi has climbed out of that ditch and returned to the top step of the podium with a stunning defence of his Omloop Het Nieuwsblad title.
On a weekend of British success which also saw Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) finish third in the women’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Mark Cavendish win Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Stannard’s triumph tops the billing for the manner in which he took victory.
In a break of four riders, the Essex man was out-numbered three-to-one by Etixx-QuickStep - and not just any old riders from the Belgian super team. but arguably their best three Classics men.
Reigning Paris-Roubaix champion Niki Terpstra, eight-time Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix winner Tom Boonen and Stijn Vandenbergh led the way, and looked almost certain to end the team’s somewhat bizarrely long wait for a win in a race which serves as the curtain raiser to the cobbled Classics season.
But Stannard had other ideas, showing the sort of tactical strength, awareness and, crucially, the fast finish which will prove invaluable as the cobbled campaign continues.
Stannard played the perfect hand by first sitting on the QuickStep trio as they looked to pull away from a fast-approaching counter-attack led by the in-form Sep Vanmarcke, and then marking Tom Boonen’s move off the front.
When Terpstra then attacked, Stannard seized his opportunity, following the 2014 Paris-Roubaix winner and soon leaving Boonen and Vandenbergh behind to ensure it would be a one-on-one sprint for victory.
Stannard was undoubtedly given a helping hand by Etixx-QuickStep's bizarre tactics, with the strongest Classics team in the business failing to use their numerical advantage to work over the sole Sky rider. Boonen's attack would have raised eyebrows, given Tornado Tom was the fastest sprinter in the group, while Vandenbergh appeared to chase down Terpstra's attack, helping to tow Stannard back up to the leader.
But, regardless, it took a classy - and clever - rider to seize the opportunity and leave Etixx-QuickStep wandering how they managed to throw the race away.
Stannard's victory not only brought a smile to the face of British fans but also plenty of neutrals, proving not only that Etixx-QuickStep could be beaten but that we're in for one hell of a Classics campaign with the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix looming large.
Of course, we've been here before after Stannard's first Omloop victory 12 months ago, but unless lightning strikes twice and Stannard's campaign is de-railed by injury again, Team Sky will go into two of the biggest races of the season with one of the favourites in their ranks as part of a three-pronged attack with Geraint Thomas and Sir Bradley Wiggins.
Thomas is also in fine form after winning the Volta ao Algarve, while Wiggins put in a strong performance in support of Stannard at the weekend and proved last year he knows how to prepare for Paris-Roubaix without pulling up trees beforehand.
It would be remiss, too, to fail to mention Luke Rowe’s form, after he followed up a strong Tour of Qatar by putting in an aggressive ride at the Omloop and eventually finishing ninth at the head of a group which also contained Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).
One win doesn't make a season and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad remains a (significant) stepping stone on the road to Flanders and Roubaix, but Stannard has again proved that he is one of the strongest Classic riders in the peloton.
And with Thomas, Wiggins and Rowe all chomping at the bit, 2015 could finally be the year Team Sky and British cycling fans are rewarded with a spring campaign to remember.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2015 – result
1) Ian Stannard (GBR) – Team Sky – 4.58.41hrs
2) Niki Terpstra (NED) – Etixx-QuickStep – ST
3) Tom Boonen (BEL) – Etixx-QuickStep +8"
4) Stijn Vandenbergh (BEL) – Etixx-QuickStep +15"
5) Sep Vanmarcke (BEL) – Team LottoNL-Jumbo +1.24
6) Greg van Avermaet (BEL) – BMC Racing – ST
7) Zdenek Stybar (CZE) – Etixx-QuickStep +1.29
8) Philippe Gilbert (BEL) – BMC Racing +4.35
9) Luke Rowe (GBR) – Team Sky +4.55
10) Arnaud Demare (FRA) – FDJ.fr – ST