Stannard's Unheralded Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Win a Turning Point for Team Sky?

Thomas CooperFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2014

Sky's Ian Stannard pipped BMC man Greg Van Avermaet to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this past Saturday.
Sky's Ian Stannard pipped BMC man Greg Van Avermaet to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this past Saturday.Yves Logghe/Associated Press

Ian Stannard's win at the Flanders Classic Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday went largely under the radar in Britain.

Footage of the rider's feat was consigned to showings of half hour highlights the following day on the sports channels of his team's sponsor (not a slight on them specifically, that was better than nothing). Mentions elsewhere—outside of cycling circles at least—were at a minimum.

It was a shame for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, played out on a first day of spring that still thought it was winter, it was a heck of a race. With around 15km to go, the muddy pair of Sky's Stannard and BMC's Greg Van Avermaet broke free from a leading pack that had negotiated the Belgian race's climbs and cobbles in thrilling fashion.

The ensuing battle to suss one another out was won by Stannard, who in the culminating sprint—as Cycling News' Brecht Decaluwé described it—"with a strong pedigree from his track racing days, kicked out and had enough to hold off a late challenge from the Belgian rider."

Both team and rider were certainly delighted with their efforts this past weekend.

Secondly, the victory might prove to be a turning point for a Sky team who have been unable to translate their success in stage races to wins in the one-day Classics and Monuments of the spring.

Sky have won at Omloop previously, back in February 2010 when Juan Antonio Flecha took a career best first.

Tremendous as an achievement as that was for the Spaniard, it did not prove to be the expected springboard for the British team. In his report of the day for Cycling News, the aforementioned Decaluwé predicted, "Sky should anticipate a fruitful Classics campaign after Juan Antonio Flecha's emphatic victory." Instead, the branches proved bare that year, and largely have since then, too.

Top-10 finishes have not been entirely absent. Flecha achieved three straight in Paris-Roubaix between 2010 and 2012 (Matthew Hayman joining him there in the latter two). More recently, Stannard finished sixth in last year's brutal Milan-San Remo. While soon after, Sergio Henao earned a commendable second place in La Fleche Wallonne after a late surge on its concluding climb (video below).

Different reasons have been mooted for Sky's inability to come out on top (beyond Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at least). In the June 2013 issue of Pro Cycling magazine, Classics specialist Fabian Cancellara suggested a shortage of racing in their preparation was to blame.

"I'm training and then later I need the races and a little training for these big races," reflected last's year's winner of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. "You saw Sky—their Classics riders went to Tenerife to train and just came back to do the Belgian races—no Tirreno-Adriatico, no Paris-Nice."

Speaking to Cycling News' Barry Ryan in February, Stannard agreed with that. He also raised another idea.

"We go into those races with a lot of leaders, if you like, but without one designated guy and that’s our downfall a bit sometimes as well," the 26-year-old said. "You look at QuickStep and Trek, they’ve got one leader and everybody rides for him. That’s the way it is, and I think we should follow a similar pattern."

It is a tricky balancing act.

In an interview with Ryan, Sky directeur sportif Servais Knaven praised his men's "perfect teamwork" on Saturday. Looking ahead, despite Knaven's talk of them not having an obvious star for these races like "Tom Boonen or a rider like Sagan or Cancellara", there could still be challenges in accommodating different cyclists' individual ambitions.

Edvald Boasson Hagen's third place at Omloop was a reminder of his talents. Geraint Thomas spoke to BBC Sport in January about becoming "the kind of rider that specialises in the Classics."

Bradley Wiggins, pictured at Team Sky's training camp in February, could have a crack at Paris-Roubaix this year.
Bradley Wiggins, pictured at Team Sky's training camp in February, could have a crack at Paris-Roubaix this year.Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Paris-Roubaix specifically could make for an interesting watch. Sir Bradley Wiggins last month reiterated to The Guardian's William Fotheringham his own desire to ride the intimidatingly nicknamed "Hell of the North". The 2012 Tour de France winner noted "so many things come together to have to win that race, or play a part, even if it's doing a job for Geraint Thomas or whatever."

It might be the latter if Stannard has his way. He told Roleur's Ned Boulting last year: "I just need to make sure I’m the first Brit to win Roubaix."

Having been through the drama of dealing with Wiggins and Chris Froome's deteriorating relationship in the past couple of years ("no longer a story" the former told Fotheringham), Sky team manager Sir Dave Brailsford is unlikely to tolerate any further petty rivalries infecting the health of his team. It appears unlikely they would either, though.

Just like they learned from their disappointing experience at the 2010 Tour de France, the black and blue of Sky are showing signs of correcting the issues of previous Classics campaigns. There will be ample competition as in any year (not least from Omega Pharma QuickStep veteran Boonen who won Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday), but Stannard's win last weekend bodes well for an improvement at least.

Success in one of the big upcoming races might even convince more folks in Britain to pay attention to the achievements of their biggest team. The rest of the cycling world certainly would be.