British national road champion Ian Stannard says Sky has “plenty of cards to play” at the first WorldTour race of the 2013 season that starts tomorrow in Adelaide, Australia.
Stannard is competing at the Tour Down Under for the first time and in what is his earliest season start ever with the Classics, and specifically Paris-Roubaix, being a major objective for the 25-year-old this year.
Sky is set to support two-time Tour de France stage winner Edvald Boasson Hagen throughout the 15th running of the Australia race that features a hillier course not, overall, suited to pure sprinters unlike some previous editions.
The British-based team moved to the front of affairs at the People’s Choice Classic 51km prelude criterium on Sunday, which Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) won, but lost position in the final lap with Chris Sutton the best-placed in fifth.
“It was pretty sketchy at the end and we just got broken up a little bit,” Stannard said. “With a lap to go it looked alright but it was a really fast last lap and we just couldn’t move up so it kind of stuffed us a bit.”
Stannard arrived in Australia on Thursday and on the weekend was still fighting the remnants of jetlag. “It’s almost like racing drunk!” he quipped.
However, he and his teammates, after very specific work at Majorca training camps in December and January, are fit and ready ahead of Down Under and the February Tour of Qatar in what could be a defining season for the Sky Classics squad.
“We’ve been training really hard so we’re all in good shape and hopefully it will show once we get into some proper road stages,” he said.
“It’s been a lot more structured in December and January – we did a lot of efforts there. It’s exciting to see. Hopefully here and in Qatar it will start to show the work we are putting in.”
Sky is keen to capture a Classic in what is its fourth WorldTour season and riders and management alike have admitted it has room to improve in the one-day races.
Come the Classics the team too has options in Stannard, Boasson Hagen, dual Olympic track gold medalist Geraint Thomas as well as 2010 Ghent-Wevelgem champion Bernhard Eisel. Then there is Australian Mathew Hayman who has finished in the top 10 of Paris-Roubaix the last two editions, and former Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner Sutton.
“Roubaix really is my aim so hopefully go alright there,” Stannard said.
Thomas will make his return to road racing tomorrow having dedicated much of the 2012 season to the velodrome and winning a second team pursuit gold medal for Great Britain at the London Olympic Games.
“G (Thomas) is in good shape and Eddy for the sprints. We’ve obviously got CJ (Sutton) as well, Hayman’s going good, so plenty of cards to play,” Stannard said.
Greipel and his drilled lead-out will enter the 135km opening stage to Lobethal tomorrow as favourite but Australia’s Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) will also be one to watch. The 2011 Milan-San Remo champion was the only rider to come close to Greipel in Sunday’s prelude race, where he finished second.
Goss is said to be in top shape for January having spent much of the pre-season at his Europe base in Monaco and not native Tasmania. Burgeoning fast-man Marcel Kittel may also figure in the opening stage. He headlines the Argos-Shimano team that has gained a top-tier licence after racing last season as a Professional Continental outfit.
World champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) appeared to take it easy at the prelude criterium on the weekend ahead of his season debut in the rainbow jersey. Andy Schleck (RadioShack Leopard Trek) will begin his 2013 race count in Australia as he returns to competition having been sidelined for most of 2012, including the Tour de France, due to an injury.