Stannard up for the Classics

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CYCLIST Ian Stannard put in what was arguably his best ever stage race performance in last week’s Tour of Oman – and in doing so will have boosted his morale ahead of the start of the cobbled Classics this weekend.

Like the previous week’s Tour of Qatar, the race in Oman was over six days but included nearly 180kms extra racing. And with the Oman terrain verging close to mountainous in comparison to Qatar, Stannard has now returned to the UK with two weeks hard and varied racing in his legs.

With Team Sky pitching in looking for stage wins by either World Champion Mark Cavendish or Aussie sprinter Chris ‘CJ’ Sutton, Stannard was in demand as the team tried to line out the opposition ahead of the sprints that dominated the early stages.

The second stage – that started with a two hour transfer by sea before the day’s racing even got underway – was the first sorting point for the riders aiming for the overall classification as it finished with an eight per cent rise over the final kilometre. But Stannard more than coped with that, only losing 31 seconds of the stage winner.

He was then in team mode on stage three that resulted in Cavendish coming home in 8th place. Sutton then picked up the team’s best stage result with his fifth place finish on stage four – acknowledging the work Stannard had done in getting that result – but it was on the fifth stage that the city cyclist really showed how far he’s come on as a rider this year.

This was the ‘Queen Stage’ of the race, the 158km route finishing on the climb of the Green Mountain that itself included stretches at nearly 18 per cent, certainly not a day for the sprinters.

Nearly all the 120-man field was together as they started the final 5.7km push up Green Mountain, but as the road veered upwards riders started to be shelled out the back of the peloton.

Stannard held on as long as he could – the 24-year-old dragging his huge frame up the twisting road to the top, only losing just over two minutes on the day’s stage winner.

With only limited losses in the other stages, Stannard finished the race in 26th place overall just 3mins 57secs behind the winner, and the best placed Team Sky rider in the general classification.

After an 18 hour flight back to the UK, he will have little time to unpack before he travels to Belgium for this weekend’s traditional double header of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday followed by Sunday’s Kuurne – Bruxelles – Kuurne, the race Stannard showed his Classics potential in 2010 when he finished in 3rd place overall in appalling conditions.

“From now on it’s pretty much race and rest, race and rest, the season just goes full on,” said Stannard.

“For Qatar and Oman it was great to be back racing and as these were really training races for me, it was great to be able to do that in really good weather.

“This is where my favourite part of the season kicks in. Of the races this weekend, Het Nieuwsblad is the tougher of the two as it’s got more cobbled climbs. But you just never know what to expect from these races, if they’re going to finish in a sprint like at Kuurne last year or we’re going to be blown all over the place by the winds.”

Team Sky won the Omloop in 2010 and at Kuurne in 2011, so with 400kms racing in front of him over the two days, Stannard will have plenty of opportunity to improve on his 2010 Kuurne result and maybe even add to Sky’s growing reputation in these opening Classics of the season.