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As a rider, Ian Stannard loved nothing better than to dish out pain. It was his stock in trade. Riding on the front, in all weather, mile after mile, putting rival teams in the red.
“That was when I was happiest,” says Stannard. “Hearing on the radio that the group has split behind. OK, let’s go. Squeeze a bit more. Put that nail in the coffin. I remember in the [Criterium du] Dauphine the other year, with Kiry [Vasil Kiryienka, his former Ineos team-mate], killing it on the front. It feels weirdly good.”
Even for Stannard, though, there is a limit to how hard you can be. The Chelmsford-born rider was forced to retire last week, at the age of just 33, after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. The pain was simply too much to endure. Sitting in his home in Wilmslow, in an office empty but for a framed photo of a line of riders strung out on what looks like a section of Roubaix pavé, it is clear Stannard is still struggling to come to terms with how it ended.
“It’s very weird,” he says. “I mean, it’s all I’ve ever known. It’s your whole identity. I always thought I had another three or four years in me.”
Of course, Stannard tried to tough it out. After first noticing the pain in his hands last summer, he tried to convince himself it was down to a change of bike, from the Pinarello F10 to the F12.
“I told myself it must be these new handlebars,” he says. “I haven’t quite got the position right. The shifters are slightly wrong. I didn’t want to admit it. But it was getting worse and worse. I’m sat down in the evenings and my wrists and fingers are on fire.”
After being diagnosed, Stannard tried to manage the symptoms as best he could while juggling training schedules and race programmes.
“Being a sportsperson, you know, pain is part of your life and yeah, you tell yourself to man up. But it was difficult. In training, it is already very painful, but you can kind of take your hands off the bars, move them about, stretch them out. But racing in Australia [in January], I was like, ‘Whoah’. The bumps in the road. It was like being on fire.
"That position on the bike makes them swell more. And you sit there in the evening with the swelling, and, you know, getting a lot of physio on them as well. It was difficult. And then we had the whole kind of lockdown period."
Stannard appeared only once after the season resumed in July, withdrawing from the Tour of Poland on stage four. By then, his ankles had started to swell as well, and the balls of his feet were agony, and he was worried about being able to pick up his two daughters, aged five and three, never mind compete in the Flanders Classics.
“I can’t really run around with them now,” he says. “I love mucking about with them, watching them grow, taking them to school. But, you know, if I get carried away, I regret it a few hours later. The burning really starts and the swelling comes back up.”
Stannard is hopeful that a combination of rest and recovery, allied to different medication, can help to settle the symptoms. He is philosophical.
“It’s unlucky, I guess. But from what I’ve seen and read, it can hit anyone at any age. I mean, the nurse who came around the other day, she’s saying she’s seen 16-year-olds with it. At least I had a career.”
He certainly did. The engine that drove countless Great Britain and Team Sky victories, including Mark Cavendish’s famous UCI Road World Championship win in Copenhagen in 2011 and three of Chris Froome’s four Tour de France triumphs (2013, 2015 and 2016), Stannard also had notable individual successes, too.
He was British National Road Race champion in 2012, a year when he memorably lapped the field at the London Nocturne, and won stages of the Tour of Britain in 2016 and 2018.
"I was always pretty big," he notes. "You look at Swifty [Ben Swift] and he was tiny when we were like, 12. Whereas I was always pretty big. So yeah, I guess it was always pretty easy to inflict some pain on him! I'm sure he's got other stories where he's beating me.
"It kind of shapes the kind of rider you are. Him and Blythey [Adam Blythe] haven’t got big engines but they’re real crafty riders, and ride in the wheels well. Whereas I'm not as good at that."
It was his performances in the spring classics, though, which will live longest in the memory, particularly “that” second win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2015, when he escaped with three Etixx-Quick Step riders, including the Belgian great Tom Boonen, and then outwitted them all on their home turf.
Is it his best memory? “It’s up there, for sure,” he says. “Beating them three Quick-Step guys, and two of them had won Roubaix. That was cool. But there are so many. Riding up the Champs-Elysees with Froomey in yellow. Standing on the podium in Roubaix [in 2016 when he finished third].”
Roubaix is a source of sadness as well as pride. “I always wanted to win that race. In my head, I think I still can. But I did my best. Sometimes I was unlucky. You have to be realistic, though. I could pick up the odd win here or there. But I forged a career more from helping other people.”
It was appreciated. Softly-spoken off the bike, Stannard was never one to blow his own trumpet. By his own admission, he had to be persuaded into giving this interview. But he admits he was touched to see the messages which followed his retirement from contemporaries such as Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Cavendish, the last of whom described Stannard as the “toughest cyclist you have ever met. But off the bike, a gentle giant, absolutely loved by everybody who knows him.”
Stannard looks a bit embarrassed. “I was quite happy just to slope off almost,” he says. “But no, it’s been really nice to see some of the messages. It makes you realise you have done all right.”