“I’m Yogi, aren’t I?” A rhetorical question.
Mercifully, I’m not the one who brings up the subject of his nickname. Ian Stannard does that for me.
Nonetheless, I feel duty bound to agree with him. “Yes, you are.”
“Yogi Bear. It’s well and truly stuck, unfortunately.” He looks wistful.
I nod sympathetically. It’s not that he wears a small green trilby, or a starched collar and tie, like his ursine namesake. Nor that he’s a resident of Jellystone Park (although he does come from Milton Keynes). But the name still works. In fact, it works rather too well.
“At first, it was kind of a close-knit thing for my friends, and then I joined Sky and the team started calling me it, and then a few other riders from other teams started picking it up. Now bloody everyone knows. Now I get some random Joe from the side of the road shouting, 'Go on, Yogi!’”
And with that, he smiles.
* * *
I’m not sure what I really knew of Ian Stannard (we’re done with the Yogi bit – best to get it out of the way early doors) before I flew out to Mallorca to visit Team Sky back in January.
True enough, our paths had crossed often enough; most commonly when braving the drizzle in some supermarket car park on the Tour of Britain, or once as I waited for him to wipe the mud from his eyes after winning the National Championships. Once I even bumped into him in Tuscany, hobbling around on a fractured foot, all six-foot-whatever of him, clad in the urine yellow kit of Italy’s premier blast-furnace manufacturer, ISD. He was leaving a gelateria and jumping on a Vespa to take himself off for an X-ray. I thought he looked brilliant; a great big hulk of British bloke mincing around, and playing at being all continental.
Now I’m sitting with him in a bar at his winter training camp. He’s kept me waiting for hours, but that’s okay. It’s given me time to get a feeling for quite how excited Sky’s coaching staff are about what he can achieve this coming season. “He’s flying,” Rod Ellingworth tells me. “Best numbers of his life.” They love a number at Sky. They like good numbers best of all.
When he does finally sit down and we start talking, I brief him quickly about the piece I have been charged with writing. It’s for Rouleur, I tell him. There will be some wonderful, possibly black and white, photos accompanying the article. He’s happy with that. “You can get some real, emotional pictures. I don’t know how they do it: certain light, certain angle, whatever. You really see that in Rouleur – really arty and a lot of emotion in their pictures.” He quite fancies the idea of being a photographer, I find out later from a mutual friend.
And I tell him that plenty of people think of him as the Hard Man Of The Classics. Is he comfortable if I write about him in those terms?
“Yeah. Yeah. Suppose so. I’m supposed to be hard. Absolutely.”
As if in support of this claim, he tells me that last autumn he had yet another X-ray. When the doctors back in Manchester saw what he’d done to his pelvis, they were amazed. “They wanted to know how the hell I broke my pelvis there. ‘Wow. You’ve done a good job. We’ve not seen a break like that before’.”
It hadn’t broken like pelvises are supposed to break, I guess. But then again, most pelvis fractures don’t come about as the result of flying over your handlebars at 70 kilometres an hour: it was the closing few hundred metres of the Franco-Belge, and there was an almighty stack. It took Stannard five minutes to remount and pedal gingerly over the line, wondering why it hurt like hell. That evening he flew home to Manchester. It was a premature, and bumpy, end to his season.
“The pilot smashed it down onto the runway. I think it was Ryanair. I was there screaming in pain. Everyone was looking at me like I was bloody nuts.”
The scream that drowned out Ryanair’s ‘landed on time’ trumpet fanfare wasn’t just because of his broken bones (he’d popped a couple of ribs too), although I’m sure that had a lot to do with it. There must also have been a deep sense of frustration that the form of his life was going begging. He was targeting Paris-Tours, a race he believed he could win, having finished fourth in 2011. He had just ridden the Vuelta for Chris Froome and the Worlds for Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, which had taught him a lot about his form, and how he matched up against the best in the world.
“I was in more of a supporting role to Jonathan, and was taking a lot of wind. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have protected myself a bit, and I think I could have done something there. I definitely felt really strong. So, it’s a bit of a shame, and maybe a wasted opportunity to show what I could have done.” He worked relentlessly for Tiernan-Locke until the foot of the Cauberg, then popped.
Thirty-sixth place, at 17 seconds to Phillipe Gilbert, is all that the record books show of the colossal Stannardian day in the saddle. So what? Well. We’ll see.
It’s the start of his fourth year with Team Sky, he’s the British National Champion; he’s 25. It’s probably time he got seriously serious about winning bike races.
* * *
Ian Stannard is as low key, down-to-earth and unexotic, at least to the British palate, as the export quality fish and chips they serve along the tourist strip in Mallorca. The marketeers have tried lately to mythologise him, to turn him into something quirky, spirited and edgy. Much like Wiggins’ new kit, which has the much-copied Mod RAF roundel embroidered in the detail wherever you care to look, so Rapha has taken to sewing the logo “Merci Essex” onto Stannard’s kit, in an effort to bestow ‘character’.
The problem is that Stannard doesn’t really get the association.
Yes, he was born in Essex (for Rouleur’s international readership, Essex is a part of England famous for chancers, spivs, flash bastards and lovable rogues), but he grew up in Milton Keynes, a quietly anonymous, unremarkable and unpretentious strip of England; a new town caught somewhere between the flatlands of East Anglia and the rolling countryside of the Midlands. It’s somewhere and nowhere, really. It’s hard to make Milton Keynes mythical; a nightmare for Rapha’s aspirational image-makers.
You suspect that young Ian Stannard was never really in danger of going off the rails. “My parents weren’t cyclists. They didn’t know anything about it. My mum works for the council in Planning Enforcement and my dad’s a policeman. Transport police – toy police, or whatever they call them.”
But the “hard man” thing? I think there’s some truth in that, for sure. He tells me, with a matter-of-factness I find astonishing, that he was not yet ten years old when he started competing in triathlons. Triathlons for under-tens! I imagine a load of tiny kids lined up in some godforsaken Buckinghamshire municipal mudbath, knees knocking, and parents hollering encouragement. Jesus.
“Is that even legal?”
“I don’t know,” Stannard grins. “You wouldn’t think so, would you? They’re bloody nutters!”
He finished third in his first ever race, and won many others, too. The bike leg was his strong suit, and bit-by-bit he dropped the swimming and running. A young career in cycling went its familiar course; he got better and better. As a junior, he adored the blokish camaraderie of competition, rather than the bookish culture of the sport. Yes, he might have known who Eddy Merckx was (“I know more than Edvald. I’m not as bad as him” – a playful dig at the famously innocent Boasson Hagen and his lack of cycling knowledge). But he didn’t exactly soak it up like a sponge. It wasn’t until he saw a picture of Johan Museeuw in a magazine that he sat up and started to take notice.
“I saw a picture of him racing Paris-Roubaix. Caked in dirt. That was the year [Servais] Knaven won. It really took my imagination. Just ’cos it looked hard and brutal.” It was 2001.
At the same time, he was taken abroad to race in Belgium at weekends. Those trips sealed the deal. He fell for the Classics. “The racing was far better than the UK. It suited me down to the ground. It was where I started to realise I wanted to be a pro. I wanted to race hard in Belgium. I really became aware of the Belgian classics. They’re just hard races, aren’t they? They just kind of rip themselves apart. I didn’t win any bunch sprints: it was more like breaking off the front in little groups. I’d win a sprint from three or four. I loved it.
“Those trips were brilliant; far better than going into Milton Keynes for the weekend. Your parents dropped you at a motorway junction and this old boy took you off to Belgium bike racing. €30 or something it used to cost.”
A brief flirtation with a career as a plumber (if indeed you can flirt with plumbing) ended abruptly when he secured a summer’s riding in Holland. He was just 16 years of age, and he loved it.
“It might sound arrogant saying it, but deep down I knew I could make it. And I wanted to prove to myself I could make it. It’s only now when I look back that I think, bloody hell, if I hadn’t made it, what would I be doing now?” Plumbing probably.
Rabobank Continental asked him to sign. That in turn led to a dilemma. British Cycling’s Academy wanted Stannard to join up full-time. This would mean lots of track and lots of Manchester, while a sizeable part of Ian Stannard’s sizeable frame wanted lots of road and lots of Belgium. What to do? “There was a conflict. Deep down, I wanted to be a road rider in Belgium. And then there was the Academy. You could see Rod Ellingworth’s work ethic, and how all those guys were going, but it was very track orientated. I was a bit hesitant.
“I remember driving up to Manchester with my mum, to drop me off at Manchester Velodrome. But even driving up there, I’m thinking, ‘Jesus Christ. Am I making the right decision?’ The whole journey I could have turned around at any point.”
History will judge that decision favourably. After a year on the track, he refocused his sights and started to churn through the gears of a professional career on the road; first as a stagiaire with T-Mobile. When they bust apart, and Highroad was born, he didn’t survive the cull. Dave Brailsford used his connections to sort Stannard out with a ride for Landbouwkrediet. This wasn’t necessarily an ideal move.
On the one hand, living in a mouse-infested empty shell of a hostel, virtually alone, was a wholesome toughening up. The only companions he had were the odd “randomers” who dropped in for a night or two. On the other hand, the fact that he received not a scrap of guidance meant that he had to live on his wits. “The problem with a team like that is that everybody is on their own. It’s all very cut-throat. They don’t want to give their secrets away.”
The opportunities to race were exceptional, however, given that he was riding for a Belgian team. In 2008, as a neo-pro, he rode The Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix all in one week.
“Flanders was the first Classic that I rode. I was absolutely scared shitless. It’s just up another level, isn’t it? The crowds are up another level. You’re riding along the cobbled streets of Bruges from the bus to the signing on, then you come into the square in Bruges, and you ride up the ramp, and you’re above everyone, and you see how many people there are. Jesus Christ! Just the size of the crowds. That suddenly hit me.
“Or two days before, riding along sections of the course and there’s people tidying their gardens up, because they’re going to be on TV. All these little bits start clicking into place. Jesus Christ, this is massive! This is really massive. It’s a national thing, innit? All the best riders are there. Everyone wants to win that race. It’s big in every sense. I just wanted to finish, really. That was my ambition.
“Halfway round my bike broke. I got on a spare that was about half the size of my regular bike. I managed to get back into the main group and finished.”
And in Roubaix?
“Roubaix’s a bit of a smaller scale. It’s only when you get closer to Flanders, and the Roubaix velodrome, when the Belgian fans come to the cobbled sectors that it really gets bigger. Carrefour de L’Arbre? I think that was the last year they allowed drinking on there. I remember all the barbecues, the smell of alcohol, spectators trying to hand out beer glasses and stuff. All these people. Absolutely bonkers. And then entering the velodrome, and it’s almost peace. I made it. I’m there.”
This is almost word for word the same sensation as Roger Hammond had described to me last year, when talking about his third place in the 2004 Paris-Roubaix. What he would have been unaware of, as he rode into the velodrome on the wheel of Fabian Cancellara, is that he was being watched by Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, sitting in the stands. They had just ridden the junior race, and had finished in first and second places. That day Stannard knew for certain what his primary career goal would be; the one he’s focusing very narrowly on now.
“I just need to make sure I’m the first Brit to win Roubaix.
“No disrespect to anyone who’s won Flanders, because fucking hell, everyone wants to win it, don’t they? I’d be fully made up if I could win that thing. But, really, personally, I want to win Roubaix. It just kills your body. There’s a real hard element to it. The whole day is consistently hard. With Flanders the races shuts down and then starts up over and over. But Roubaix never shuts down. I just think it’s a harder race.”
After his debut senior classics season in 2008, Stannard went to live in Italy. Max Sciandri got him a ride for ISD, at the time run by Luca Scinto, whom he credits with teaching him a lot about the life of a pro (“how to train like a professional, and how to race like a professional”). He rode his first Grand Tour – the Giro.
The following year was strange. Quarrata, the little Tuscan town which was home to the GB Academy riders, became accustomed to the sight of a gaggle of Brits in a kaleidoscopic range of different kits, hoovering espresso and ice-cream in the town square. Mark Cavendish (HTC Columbia) was the resident-in-chief, but Steve Cummings, Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome (all Barloworld), Ben Swift (Katusha), Jonny Bellis (CSC) and Ian Stannard (ISD) were always buzzing around the town square on their Vespas, learning the affected ways of the continental pro.
“Max introduced me to watches and Vespas. Apparently it was very important, if you wanted to be a pro, to have a nice watch and a Vespa. Before you get a house, or anything, buy a nice watch, okay? It was almost like just filling in a year. Those teams were all offering two-year contracts, but we all wanted Sky. So it was a little bit random.”
Then, in 2010, Team Sky was born, and everything changed again.
* * *
Ian Stannard has swapped the Tuscan sunshine for the Peak District, close to Manchester. Somehow, it suits him better. “I don’t mind a bit of rain. I like to be able to shut off from cycling a little bit. Go home, speak English. Do some normal stuff.
“When we were all in Quarrata together, you went to race with the same guys, you went training with the same guys, you went to the café with the same guys. Yes, it was okay, but eventually it starts getting a bit tedious. It’s just nice having other people to talk to, and having a bit of another life.”
And, on the bike, his role within Team Sky has always been well defined; let loose in the Classics, harnessed for the service of others in the Grand Tours. With Sky, he’s ridden one Giro and two Vueltas, most memorably when Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins both finished on the podium in 2011. He has proven an invaluable domestique, in the mould of Cancellara or Jens Voigt, putting down the first big effort at the base of a climb, and taking the wind for hour after hour on the flat. But he’s never ridden the Tour de France, which is, he acknowledges, a bit of an issue in terms of his public profile back home.
“It’s about the only thing a British person knows. Did you ride the Tour? Yeah. Okay, you’re a good bike rider. No? Fucking hell, you’re shit then, aren’t you? To your average Joe at the side of the street, that’s the way it is.”
Never mind France then, although he’s determined to make the cut this year. Stannard comes into his own when March blows its chilly wind across the cycling calendar and thoughts turn to Belgium, ploughed fields, cobbles, wind and rain.
His best result to date came in 2010 [Ed. - save for Het Niuewsblad 2014]. It was Sky’s debut season, and although it wasn’t a true Classic, Stannard’s third place in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne generated a lot of excitement. He shudders when he recalls that day. It was hellish.
“I think that what saved me was that I was meant to get in the early move, so I was racing hard from the gun. But the guys who were saving themselves for the finish just got colder and colder as the day went on. And the weather just got worse and colder, and worse and colder. It was really heavy hail and really heavy rain. Super winds. Stijn Devolder got knocked off by a bin that blew across the road: it was absolute mayhem.
“I was pushing buttons on my bike and my gears were going all over the place. I couldn’t undo my food. They’re on the bus watching it on TV, and phoning the director: ‘Tell him to take his cape off’. They wanted me to be more aero – to get out there and bloody win it. But there was no way I was taking my bloody cape off. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth.”
As he crossed the line in third place, he had to be supported by his soigneur. The rest, he can barely remember. Or has chosen to forget. “Edvald [Boasson Hagen] got on the bus, and stood under the shower in his kit. [Mat] Hayman had hypothermia. He was shaking away. He did some random interview on Belgian TV and he can’t remember to this day what he said.
“I’ve got this reputation from that race of being real hard. People reckon a rainy day in Roubaix is really going to suit me.”
He came close in Gent-Wevelgem in 2011, breaching the flamme rouge alone, only to be swallowed up by the bunch with 500 metres left. Tom Boonen went on to win that race. And Boonen won last year’s Paris-Roubaix too, much to Stannard’s frustration. Boonen attacked ridiculously early, and Sky had numbers in the chasing group, but they weren’t thinking straight.
“We all rode on the front, individually, while Boonen was riding off up the road. If we’d have ridden as a group, we could have closed that down very quickly. We had five really strong individuals. They’re chaotic races, and you’ve got to be able to think on your feet. Split-second decisions. I don’t think Sky has made the best decisions in the last few years.
“I could say a lot, but I’m not going to. But it was the wrong call.”
* * *
There’s a bullishness to Ian Stannard that I wasn’t expecting. In hindsight, of course, it’s perfectly natural, quite appropriate, thoroughly reasonable. You don’t get to where he is simply by being meek. But somehow I had been lulled into the belief that he was a likeable workhorse, a servile monster. What I hadn’t banked on stumbling across was the man’s naked self-belief and simmering ambition.
This season has taken on a real significance for Stannard. When I visit Mallorca, they are training in two distinct groups. There is the ‘GC group’, led by Wiggins and Froome, tailored to the vertiginous needs of Italy in May and France in July, however that may pan out (and it is a pleasant relief not to be asking about Sky’s precarious power structures). And there is the ‘Classics group’ headed up by Geraint Thomas, Boasson Hagen and Stannard. They are in full flight when I visit, and the coaching team report that they are consistently exceeding personal bests. Hopes are high.
Opportunities have been created further still by the departure of a Classics specialist – and the only Sky man to date to have won a semi-Classic, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. “Now [Juan Antonio] Flecha’s gone it’s opened up a lot of doors on the team, and hopefully I can prove myself. That’s the idea.”
A change in the team’s thinking also mitigates in Stannard’s favour. “They’ve kind of decided the Classics are really important. They’ve won the Tour. Let’s go for the Classics. So, we’re going for it, big time.”
Our conversation is interrupted briefly as one of Sky’s army of soigneurs appears in front of us with a washed and dried jersey for tomorrow morning’s outing. It is, of course, the white jersey with the red and blue of the British National Champion. Well, it’s almost white. The colours have run, and the whole thing looks a bit murky blue.
“They said the colours wouldn’t run!” Teething problems. It’s a new kit supplier, or maybe a new washing machine.
“What about these bands, though?” I ask him, pointing at the jersey.
“They’re quite nice,” he laughs.
But when he talks about the race in which he won them, there is a palpable sense of anti-climax.
“Who was your main threat that day?” He sighs. “No one. Am I allowed to say that?
“At the Nationals you go from the gun. It’s basically ‘last man standing’ and you’ve got to be pretty strong to beat me. Last man standing. One on one. I rode away from the last two on the first climb of the final circuit with about 15k to go. To be honest I didn’t expect to go on my first attack. I expected it to be a bit harder. I was still very controlled and measured at that point. It wasn’t really in doubt.”
He looks at the jersey once again. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m really proud of it and stuff. It’s awesome racing in it…”
There’s a “but” coming. “…but it would have been really good to have fought for it down to the wire.”
If it’s too easy, you sense, it’s not much fun. The jersey may have conferred some status on Stannard’s broad shoulders, but it’s not what he’s really after. What he wants more than anything is some return within the team for the work he’s done in the service of others.
“It’s always a quid pro quo,” I put to him. “You give and you get, no?”
“Yup. Hopefully I’ve given enough now and I can get some getting.”
* * *
“Something in my head thought, yeah, that looks fun.”
We’re back to that picture of Johan Museeuw covered in grime.
“So, not like a beautiful clear blue sky in the Alps, then?” I ask him.
“Someone skipping up a mountain?”
“No.” He thinks about it. “It was the pure grit, the hard work. Really slaving away to victory. That’s an image that always stands out in my head. Just like this image.”
You wonder how often that image passes through his mind when he’s out on a training ride. He has plenty of time to reflect, after all.
“I mainly go out on my own to be honest. I can’t be bothered with the bullshit of someone wanting to ride slower, someone wanting to ride faster. Just get out and get the job done. I enjoy being out on my own.
“Sometimes, when it’s sleeting, I think I’m bloody mad going out in it for a training ride. And then you see four guys working in a bloody trench at the side of the road, and you think, you know what? I do four hours in this, then I can go home and have a shower. It’s when you see that, that you actually realise it’s just four hours in the rain.”
That’s the kind of observation that makes Ian Stannard a bit different, I suppose. A willingness to mix the world he’s from with the world he’s moved into; one foot planted firmly on the ground even as the other one pedals. There’s a sensibly-sized ego at work here, planted on sensibly broad shoulders, with proper ambition in real races. It’s not much to ask, is it, if the man who has ridden his tripes out so that others might get the glory has his moment too.
He’s like the bloke digging for hour after hour in the trench, when suddenly he strikes gold. Except, it’s only bike racing, as he is at pains to point out. It’s not like it’s any more real than that. “It’s nothing really, is it?” he says when comparing his occupation to the real world of hard graft and scant reward.
Well, it’s hardly nothing. But I take his point.
Ned Boulting is the author of How I Won the Yellow Jumper published by Yellow Jersey Press
This originally appeared in Rouleur 37, published in March 2013.