Encouraging start to the season for Stannard

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SIX hard, fast days racing in the Tour of Qatar have kick-started Ian Stannard’s racing campaign for 2012 and given him some very good pointers to the form he’s been fine tuning after an intense winter’s training programme.

Now a traditional season opener for Classics riders like Stannard, Qatar offers some fast roads and vicious crosswinds, and constant reminders of what the hard men of the road will face in Belgium and northern France over the coming nine or 10 weeks.

The 700kms of racing proved to be a very successful hunting ground for Stannard and his Team Sky team-mates with ‘new boy’ Mark Cavendish picking up two stage wins and the team finishing third overall and just nine seconds off the pace in the second stage 11.3km team time trial.

That was a great team result for the eight-man squad and one that Stannard really played a key part in, as could be seen by his very last – and long – dig at the front as the team came into the final kilometre and the finishing line. An effort that left the youngster gasping for air as he drifted off the back of the group in the closing metres to finish behind the rest of his team.

The 144km fourth stage saw Stannard slot into the lead group of 16 riders that was formed by the crosswinds that blew the peloton to pieces – with that front group including eventual race winner Tom Boonen and current ‘Classics King’ Fabian Cancellara.

But Stannard wasn’t distracted by some of bike racing’s ‘heads of state’ and after helping Sky’s Classics leader Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha into fourth place, the 24-year-old still held his own position to come home 10th overall.

With Cav’s two wins already in the bag, the team were determined to add another in the final 120km stage that finished with 11 6km laps around the harbour in the Qatari capital of Doha. But a crash as the full speed peloton approached the finishing line saw Cavendish spill to the ground.

Stannard had already played his part in working to bring his sprint leader to the front of the race. Flecha finished third overall in the general classification with Stannard back in 55th place and just over four minutes behind the race winner – a more than workman like performance at this stage of the year.

Stannard now moves on to the next race in his early season schedule – the six-day Tour of Oman.

“That’s a totally different race,” he said. “Whereas Qatar is flat and very fast, the Oman race features some climbs that will be the first up hill racing kilometres for most of us this year.”