Brendan Gallagher reflects on another busy weekend on cycling, including double British success in Belgium to complete a profitable February for British riders on the road.

Was I the only one who punched the air for joy when Ian Stannard pulled off his remarkable coup at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday? It was a masterful ride against the odds touched by genius in the last 10km and I suspect in weeks and years to come Etixx Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevre, normally the most generous and fair-minded of observers,  will regret his rather sour reaction to Stannard’s heroics.

I can only imagine he was still in a state of shock that his three stars of world renown somehow contrived to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory but that would be to underplay the brilliant hand Stannard played and the fact that sometimes bike races just don’t go to script, for which many thanks should be offered up to the cycling gods

When Stannard, whose Sky colleagues had done much work at the front of the peloton early in the race, infiltrated that final four man break 40km out he found himself in very elite company.  There was the one day legend that is Tom Boonen, reigning Paris Roubaix champion Niki Terpstra and tough cookie Stijn Vandenbergh. Objectively his chances of winning against such an illustrious trio from the same team were zero and strangely I suspect that put Stannard in a fairly relaxed state of mind. He was able to enjoy being out front in the mix but expectations were still low. It just wasn’t going to happen. Was it?

Nor would I accept there was any obligation for him to contribute equally to the break.  His Sky colleagues – notably Brad Wiggins and Bernie Eisel – had worked hard generally for the peloton to prevent breakaways and now it was up to the Quick-Step trio to hold off the chasing Sep Vanmarcke, Greg Van Avermaet and Zdenek Stybar if they wanted to consolidate the break. That wasn’t Stannard’s responsibility in any shape or form.

And just as an aside, very few riders in the modern day peloton have done more work chasing down breaks and riding for the common good as well as colleagues than Ian Stannard. He is in debt to absolutely nobody on the road.

Stannard comfortably pegged back a little Terpstra burst with just over 10km to go but then, with slightly less than 5km remaining, Quick-Step tried the old one-two but got it hopelessly out of synch. They sent Boonen the sprinter flying up the road and kept Terpstra back alongside Stannard and the fast fading Vandenbergh.

Stop the film there a minute because there is a subplot. Ridiculously for a rider of his talent Boonen has never won this race and he’s not getting any younger. Even at his advanced age he was over anxious and perhaps not thinking as clearly as normal – as he was honest enough to admit afterwards. “It was Niki Terpstra who was the first to go and then it was my turn because I didn’t think that Stannard could follow everybody. I was convinced my attack was the one. Unfortunately, the wind was against me and we’d also ridden on the front for an hour and we were cooked.”

Credit Stannard though for bringing back he former World Champion in textbook style, just gently upping his tempo and pulling it back gradually without the wounding lung bursting effort Boonen was trying to extract from him. Terpstra tucked in behind Stannard all the way as you would expect although strangely Lefevre omitted that from his account of the race!

Then Terpstra went – sort of – and again Stannard showed great racing nous in trailing him and resisting the urge to go early. Tempting as it was to make his strong time-trialling ability count the one thing he couldn’t do with a quality all-round rider like Terpstra who has a real dig, is to lead him out.  Realistically his only chance was too leave it as late as possible. Stannard was only going to get one very late bite of this cherry.

And, glory be, that’s exactly how it worked out. You could ride that final 10km 100 times and Stannard would win it just once. But this was that occasion.  What a win and what a comeback for a rider who missed most of last year after a horrific crash. Before that crash, and injury, Stannard had been threatening to finally add some lustre to Sky’s poor record in the one day Classics and for all the much debated prospects of Wiggins and Geraint Thomas at Paris Roubaix and Flanders he might still be the man to land the big one first. I will certainly be making a modest investment in Yogi come Milan-San Remo!

******

It’s just the first week of March and there have been wins and podiums everywhere you look for Great Britain’s road racers, which is in rather stark on poignant contrast to a poor performance at the Track World Championships in Paris where GB failed to win a Gold medal for the first time since 2001.

Chris Froome taking on and beating Alberto Contador in an early season dust up down in Andalucía; Geraint Thomas again hinting at big GC potential when winning the Tour of the Algarve; a podium for Lizzie Armitstead at the women’s version of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and a flurry of wins for Cav culminating in a seriously impressive victory on Sunday at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. He’s back all right, not that he was ever really away!
Mark Cavendish on the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne podium, pictured thanks to ©Etixx – Quick-Step / Tim de Waele

For years it was GB’s track success that sustained modern day cycling in this country and we should never forget that now that road racers are leading the charge. It was track cycling’s success that provided the profile, the impetus, the media coverage and the funding for the British cycling miracle to occur. All but Froome of those mentioned above to a great or lesser extent cut their cycling teeth on the track.

The ‘trackies’ are struggling a tad at present, victims in part to the extraordinary success of those that went before which realistically will not be repeated again in our lifetimes. It’s a different landscape out there but they need our support and understanding. We were all track fans when they were delivering Gold medals by the truckload, now we should demonstrate that support again in tougher times.

******

On the subject of Paris-Roubaix, mentioned earlier, time spent talking with Roger Hammond is never wasted and he was as interesting as ever on the subject when I grabbed him for five minutes at the recent Madison Genesis team launch. Can Brad Wiggins finish his road career in a blaze of glory or will all the attention heaped on him provide the perfect foil for another of Team sky’s riders?

“The dynamic is very different this year to 12-months ago when Brad almost rode to achieve a top ten, rather than win per se “ muses Hammond. “He wanted to show that he as a GC rider could ride well at a Paris Roubaix – and he did that all right it was a fine ride – but the situation over him competing in the Tour de France or not hadn’t been resolved at that stage and that was crucial. 

“Mentally you have to commit totally if you are going to stand any chance of winning Paris-Roubaix or even make the podium. I think of Cav for example. Cav has all the bike riding skills and the ability to ride cobbles to produce an absolutely outstanding Paris Roubaix one year but can that ever happen all the time the Tour de France and the Giro before that are his season’s focus? I don’t think so

“This year is definitely Brad’s last best shot. On the Monday morning after Paris-Roubaix Brad, effectively, will have ridden his last race in the pro peloton. From that Monday onwards he will recalibrate and set his sights on the Hour record, Team Wiggo and then getting back into Track shape for Rio 2016 and the Team Pursuit. Paris-Roubaix 2015 is his farewell to big time pro road cycling and that will really concentrate his mind.

“Can he do it?  Yes, I’ve always been convinced Brad has the capability to win given the little bit of luck you will always need in that race  but Team Sky have to stay flexible and have a Plan B. Brad will be a marked man, it’s out there that he wants to win this  year and the world will be watching his every move. Which is why it is important that Sky have Geraint Thomas. Geraint could win it just as easily as Brad, he has all the tools at his disposal to win Paris-Roubaix.

“A British wnner of Paris Roubaix could take the sport to yet another level in this country. The new cycling fans would discover the race and all the one day Classics and that would be another string to their bow so to speak. They will discover what a brilliant and easy to organise weekend away it is in March and April following these racer and supporting the Brits. It’s an exciting prospect.”

Stay tuned later on this week for a full interview with Roger Hammond, as he reflects on the 2014 Friends Life Tour of Britain and his aims for the Madison Genesis team in 2015.