Photography: George Marshall | Words: Harry Dowdney
He lives for the racing, for the need to compete. Forget the fusses of fame or the garlands of glamour – they mean nothing. The road offers everything he needs to feed an all-consuming desire to win. He is a roadman, just waiting for the next race.
[London, 3rd September 2015]. Ian Stannard’s eyes blaze at the mention of racing. A born competitor, the Team Sky rider has followed the tradition of many great British roadmen before him at the “hard school of racing” on the continent. It is a tough rite of passage for any aspiring talent, over cobbled roads in the harsh winter of the Low Countries, but Stannard thrived there. It was always about the racing for him. Always as hard as possible, as often as possible.
First up: the weekend trips to “bang around the little kermesses” across the English Channel as a junior. “There was a group of us; Me, Geraint [Thomas], Luke [Rowe] and [Ben] Swifty, used to meet up somewhere on the M25 for a big adventure out to Belgium with John Barclay and Dave Storey. They would take us across on the Saturday morning ferry for either a one-day race or we’d stay at a youth hostel and do two races on the weekend,” says Stannard.
It is a testament to the importance of guiding hands such as Barclay and Storey to British cycling that this quartet of teenagers all went on to become world class athletes. Hundreds of youngsters have made the same pilgrimages to Belgium with Barclay, who has been running his trips for over 40 years, each chasing the dreams of the rutted roads in front of them.
For Stannard, these first excursions abroad lit the fire of ambition inside him: “It was proper racing and the level of competition, certainly back then, was a lot higher than we were used to domestically. I remember winning a few races and thinking ‘bloody hell, this is amazing!’ When you won there you saw it as a good step towards your future.”
“you had to supply a lot of your own equipment and look after yourself. It was a fight for survival”
After a few years in the relative comfort of British Cycling’s Academy team, Stannard was back in Belgium again after missing out on a professional contract with T-Mobile-Team when they folded in 2007. The 20-year-old found a spot at Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner, an old school setup where “you had to supply a lot of your own equipment and look after yourself. It was a fight for survival, although I got to do [Tour of] Flanders, [Paris-] Roubaix, etc. as a neo-pro, which I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do,” he says, savouring this early exposure to the highest level of one-dayers.
Many young British riders fall away in the slog to turn professional, with the loneliness of living abroad and the fraying exhaustion of the endless training proving too much. While Stannard might not exactly fit in with the euro-pro culture of the warmer fringes of the continent, back in Belgium as a first year he didn’t need the sharp tan lines to prove himself. His strong legs and thirst for competition did it for him. Nor was the youngster daunted by having to look after himself – one school summer holidays he had even packed himself off to Holland to live with a Dutch family and spend a couple of months racing there.
Ian Stannard’s racing style is a mirror to the man: he just gets on with it. Whether riding straight over the cobbles while everyone else shelters in the gutter, or stringing out the entire Tour de France peloton behind him, you get a sense that he loves to dish out the hurt too. And in adding a greater sense of tactical nous to this strength – as shown by his gazumping of the Etixx-Quick Step trio at this February’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – he is only a couple of big wins away from becoming a cycling superstar. Not that the accompanying fame would be of any interest to this unassuming gent.
Whether riding straight over the cobbles while everyone else shelters in the gutter, or stringing out the bunch behind him, Stannard loves to dish out the hurt
Before he can look ahead to next season’s Classics, however, Stannard will next week ride as part of a Team Sky squad hoping to win their home race, the Tour of Britain. Both the quality of the field and the parcours have helped to improve the race’s growing reputation. “I think the organisers have really stepped up their game this year,” he says. “It’s a really challenging route with some pretty long days over 200km. I’m looking forward to Stage 6, from Stoke-on-Trent to Nottingham, which goes over the climbs of the Peak District where I train.”
With several of the stages too lumpy for the pure sprinters – six of the eight have total elevation gains of more than 2,400 metres – the Team Sky rider might well fancy his chances. He is a roadman, after all: as long as there is hard racing to be had, he’s game.
Ian Stannard was wearing the Rapha Team Sky GB Country Jersey, which is now sold out. You can buy a jersey celebrating his 2015 victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad here.