Walking away from a career can feel like leaving home. For professional cyclists, whose itinerant lifestyle means that home is usually wherever the team bus is, that’s especially true. Ian Stannard has spent his life in the sport and retiring prematurely is painful, physically and emotionally.
“I've got rheumatoid arthritis,” Stannard says. “I’ve kind of known it for the last year now. But it’s just been getting worse and worse.” A reserved personality, Stannard wanted no fanfare to surround his news. The long-time Rouleur reader opted instead to speak exclusively to us at home in the north English town of Wilmslow.
"It's kind of weird, you know – on a few different levels," says Stannard. "I didn't want to retire this young, which I'm finding quite hard. Then watching the racing, it's still slowly sinking in. You being sat here makes it feel a bit more real too."
“It's all I’ve done," he says, still struck by the surreal prospect of leaving the sport. "When I was younger pretty much every weekend I was racing around parts of the UK, then I went across to Belgium to race... and then joined the Academy. I don't know anything else. So yeah, in my head it is quite difficult.”
With Stannard’s modest character, it could be easy to overlook the striking achievements of his career. Winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2014 and 2015 – out-riding Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and a hall of fame of great Belgian Classics riders – puts him among the finest British Classics riders around.
Having also stood on the coveted Paris-Roubaix podium in 2016 and served as a domestique in numerous successful Grand Tour campaigns with Team Sky, Stannard’s career has certainly been rich. At 33, he wanted to keep racing, but the choice was made for him by rheumatoid arthritis.
Stannard's victory over a Quickstep trio at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has become a cult moment in cycling (Photo: Offside)
A long-term auto-immune condition that causes pain and swelling around the joints, it has proven incompatible with professional cycling – despite Stannard’s best efforts. Indeed, his resilience in the face of painful inflammation meant that it took some time to reach a diagnosis.
Diagnosis and management
“I had operations on both my wrists last year because they were swelling up. I put it down to being on a new bike and not quite set up right. I was ignoring the pain getting worse and worse,” Stannard explains.
He initially applied his hardened racing mentality to the challenge: “I got it in my head: right, that's something else to beat. Come on, I can do this.” Reluctant to take medication, the difficulties began to present themselves at this year’s Tour Down Under: “Racing in that heat, I realised I wasn’t going to beat it on my own.’
When Stannard turned to medication, none helped alleviate the pain, a reality he eventually confronted after numerous training rides during the spring lockdown. As a rider who prided himself on pushing through pain in the knowledge that everyone else was hurting, arthritis wasn’t a challenge he could fight through with gritted teeth.
“It’s been a frustrating struggle. And there’s been a lot of pain,” he says. While Stannard is honest about his condition, it’s clear that the prospect of retirement is one that will take some time to come to terms with.
Starting out in the British Cycling Academy, Stannard learned the trade from Rod Ellingworth amongst a golden generation of British riders that included Geraint Thomas, Mark Cavendish and Ben Swift. “Back then it was a pain in the arse sometimes,” Stannard laughs. “You’d arrive a few minutes late, and you'd be washing cars [as punishment] instead of training.”
Perhaps what has helped him develop a cult following amongst cycling fans has been his ability to perform in the most brutal Belgian races. The 2010 Kurne-Brussels-Kurne will spark fond memories amongst sticklers for punishment, with only 16 finishers in freezing conditions. Stannard was third, “disorientated by the cold,” he says.
The Classics have clearly been his great love in cycling. “I remember watching Paris-Roubaix as a kid. It really caught my imagination,” he says. “If you'd asked me when I was 12, racing it would have been a dream. I guess that’s why I always wanted to win it. But to get on the podium [in 2016]… yeah, that was cool.”
"I don't think it gets much cooler than beating three Quick Step guys in Belgium", Stannard adds with a beaming smile.
When we met in November, Stannard was still working out what he’ll do next, but he resolves to be involved in the sport he loves: “I’d like to pass my experience from the Classics onto the younger riders.”
As a rider who has proven himself as a footsoldier to Grand Tour winners, a Classics champion and a hardman, how would he like to be remembered? “It's not something I've ever thought about – I've just enjoyed racing my bike,” Stannard reflects. “But I'm probably known as more of a tough, gritty rider.
“If I’m remembered for that, I'll be happy.”