Three Etixx-Quickstep riders and one Team Sky rider. Of the three riders on the Belgian squad, Tom Boonen has a powerful sprint, Niki Terpstra is a master at riding away late in the race with powerful surprise attack and Stijn Vandenbergh is a strong workhorse and one of the best specialists there is. Only Ian Stannard is about to steal their lunch.
The spring classics are all about tradition and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad race is the familiar start to the classics season. we got the usual comforting scene of Tom Boonen attacking on the Taaienberg. Sep Vanmarcke punctured here in what was to become a new theme of the year with the Belgian classics contender suffering misfortune at the most worst moments. Indeed Vanmarcke looked at ease on the Haaghoek pavé, a sadist dishing it out to everyone only to suffer another puncture. It was just after this on the Leberg climb that Tom Boonen, Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra rode away with Ian Stannard for company. There were 40km to go, long but it left the other teams floundering. BMC, Lotto-Jumbo or Lotto-Soudal had to ask whether they could pull back these four strongmen and if they could, would they have spent their energy and get hit on the rebound by a rival team?
Even if the other teams were hesitant the lead four had their work cut out, Stannard was grimacing as he held on over the Molenberg. This effort ensured the gap was maintained as they rode to Gent, a three man rotation with Stannard sat on the back like a giant saddlebag. It’s here that things began to get interesting. The initial question was how were Etixx-Quickstep going to win this?
Workplace politics come to mind. A team has to balance different ambitions of its riders, commercial requirements and more. Could Stijn Vandenbergh get a win to reward a loyal worker or would this start to give him ideas above his station and, worryingly for manager Lefevere, demands for a pay rise? Should Tom Boonen sit tight for the sprint and Niki Terpstra try his trademark late solo attack?
With 4km to go Terpstra jumped but Stannard reeled him back and Boonen countered. But this was the first mistake, Boonen was trying to ride away solo but didn’t have it on the day and he was chased down by Stannard, a clue that Boonen could be beaten.
When Niki Terpstra launched his next move Stijn Vandenbergh appeared to chase. One tactical sophistication is what we could call “covering”: when a rider attacks, a team mate ups the pace and drifts off the front, not in pursuit of his colleague but merely so that any rival trying to latch on to the main attack knows they’ll be marked. Lotto-Soudal got this just right when Pim Ligthart won a stage of the Vuelta Andalucia. Another idea is to let Stannard go, should Terpstra and he combine then the Dutchman can softpedal knowing he’s got team mates behind waiting to hit a tired Stannard. That’s the theory anyway and it seemed the practice was different, that Vandenbergh did actually reel in Terpstra.
Look again at the photo and you’ll see Stannard at the back. In other words nobody is marking him. So when Terpstra was neutralised Stannard attacked. Vandenbergh tried to chase but paid for his efforts and cracked and soon Boonen was gone. It was one on one with Tepstra and Stannard, the odds tilting to the Brit “with the build of a docker” as Sporza’s Michel Wuyts once described him. Terpstra led out but this is a cruel finish line that rises slightly and Stannard had the brute force to come past and take the win.
It’s funny how when it happens in a spring classic it’s thrilling and when it happens in the Giro it’s suspicious, at least if you listen to the birdsong on Twitter. In terms of storytelling seeing Etixx-Quikstep drilling it over the cobbles isn’t going to raise many eyebrows. But they lost and this was a big embarrassment for the team, an obvious way for the Belgian media to pile pressure on the team for snatching defeat out of the wafflemaker of victory. Luckily for them Mark Cavendish delivered the next day in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Stannard’s win was as good as it got for him in the spring classics with DNF in Sanremo and Wevelgem and hovering around 50th place for target races like the Tour of Flanders and Roubaix; he was helping others by then. He’d later prove a useful engine for Team Sky in team time trials and part of Chris Froome’s team for the Tour de France. The Omloop isn’t cursed but because it comes so early any rider dominating in late February could be stale by early April or sometime they let themselves go, convinced the work has been done they might have a beer or dessert when others keep a steely gaze on upcoming races. Team Sky have said they want to try and win all three grand tours next year, something Katusha, Astana, BMC Racing and perhaps Tinkoff-Saxo could aim for too. But what’s missing for Sky is a big classics win, a Monument.