“I’m not afraid of really getting stuck in and giving people a good elbow. I quite enjoy it,” Ian Stannard says. “I like the games of how you’re going to position yourself into the crosswinds or the corners.”
Chris Froome’s protector has a smile on his face. He’s a genial giant off the bike, but powerful and pitiless on it. Come this year’s Tour de France, he will be throwing his weight around for Team Sky’s flyweight talisman.
“You’ve got to be able to fight, you’ve got to not be scared of flicking people. You’ve got to have a bit of c*** about you – if you can think of a better word…”
Let’s go with ruthlessness, Ian, I suggest. Stannard describes the first week of the 2015 Tour as like “a load of one-day Classics. That’s where I’ll earn my money, looking after Chris through that.”
From the potential crosswinds of Zeeland on stage 2 to the following day’s Mur de Huy approach, the cobbles of stage 4 and – don’t forget – the possibility of more wild winds on the Normandy coast, he will be a busy man.
“My job is to keep Chris at the front, make sure he’s in the best position, look after him out of the corners so he hasn’t got to sprint too hard and dent his energies.
“You’ve got to think of it as a big sugar block: how to look after his sugar block and use mine to help him – if that makes sense,” Stannard says. “Every time you keep chipping at it, that’s your energy going away. And you want to get to the end of the race with as big a sugar block as possible.
“Talking about sugar blocks. This is incredible!” he says, laughing with self-awareness at this quirky extended analogy.
It’s easier said than done. As well as getting instructions in his earpiece from the director and perusing the road book carefully, Stannard will be constantly calculating on the road for Froome. “You’re looking at trees, flags, any of that kind of stuff, to give you a bit of indication of the wind direction. You’re reading what the other teams are doing, how you think they’re going to race.
“You’ve got to watch the road and read it. The advantage of being tall is that I can look over a lot of guys in the bunch and see what’s ahead, whether it’s bending round to the right and the wind’s coming from the left or whatever. It’s pre-positioning yourself in the best place in the bunch.”
Stannard won’t be clocking off for the finales either. “You’ve got the 3km marker that you’ve got to get to, but then you need to stay at the front for the sprint because gaps happen there as well. And they’re real stupid seconds to lose. It’s my job to make sure he’s on the wheel, to create lots of space for him in the bunch – which isn’t easy – and help him get through the gaps.
“And not piss off the sprint teams too much, ’cos I’ve been on the other side of that. I know what it’s like when GC guys start to box with the sprint teams. They’re like ‘fuck off, this is our job’.”
The Critérium du Dauphiné, a traditional sharpener for the Tour, was a race of two halves for Stannard and Team Sky. “The team time trial didn’t go well for us: I got dropped real early, which wasn’t good for my confidence leading into the Tour. I’ve done a bit of training to try and address that. Then Wout [Poels] got dropped, Luke [Rowe] had a mechanical and we ended up losing quite a bit of time there. It became quite stressful.
“But it was nice to have some good days in the mountains as a team and really show our dominance. I think we rode well as a unit and we’re all confident heading into the Tour. Three stages and the overall: not bad at all.”
Stannard did some early pulls on mountain stages there, reprising a role he performed at times during the 2013 Tour when working for Froome. So, how is he climbing? “Not too bad for an 80-kilo guy. It’s never going to be amazing but at the end of the day, it’s not my job to be up there with him at Alpe d’Huez.”
After winning the 2013 Tour, Froome gave his Sky team-mates signed yellow jerseys with race numbers and a little plaque. “You move through your career so fast, ticking off things as you go, and you never look back and think ‘I managed to do this, I was a part of that,’” Stannard says. “My girlfriend told me ‘you’ll get to the end of your career and not realise what you’ve done or been part of.’”
Individually, there are his back-to-back Het Nieuwsblad wins to savour. His impressive victory in February was followed by mediocre performances in the most prestigious cobbled races. “The big Classics didn’t quite go how I wanted. I ran out of legs when I got to the 230-kilometre point, which was pretty disappointing. It was a theme in both of them. I’m hoping it’s because I didn’t do a Grand Tour last year. I missed so much time last year – three months – and a bit of racing.”
After fracturing a vertebra in a crash at the 2014 Gent-Wevelgem and spending weeks in a back brace, Stannard can reflect with happiness on an injury-free season that has seen a semi-Classic win and Tour selection.
Although physically recovered, the crash impacted his confidence. “You go rattling down some of these descents now, chasing guys at 70km/h on the wet descents, slipping on the corners. It’s like ‘do I really need to?’ You have to try and overcome it; at the wrong time, that’s very difficult. But when you’re at the front of the race and it’s on, you almost forget about it.
“A bit of old age, a bit of the crash, a bit of having a newborn baby at home, that’s changed things, for sure,” he says.
While the 28-year-old has been with Team Sky since its inception in 2010, his contract expires at the end of the year. Stannard wouldn’t be drawn on his future, but the team’s pick of the British powerhouse for the Tour de France is a strong suggestion of good faith and future intentions.