With Mark Cavendish and Roger Hammond already among their ranks, and Bradley Wiggins on their shopping list, the T-Mobile team is starting to develop quite a taste for British riders. So much so, they?re now trying out Ian Stannard.
Like Cavendish, who?s brought T-Mobile considerable success this year, 20-year-old Stannard is a product of British Cycling?s Olympic Academy and has spent the last two years learning the finer details of track and road racing, both at the Manchester Velodrome and in the hills of Tuscany.
Now, though, after several decent amateur results, it is his chance to impress the big boys. T-Mobile has taken him on as a stagiaire, entering him in races alongside experienced pros to see how he fits in.
There is no guarantee that Stannard will come out of the arrangement with a full-time contract. Despite this, and the pressure of being under close observation from the decision makers, when we sit down with Stannard at the Tour of Ireland, he comes across as relaxed and quietly confident.
How have you found racing with the pros?
It?s really relaxed. Here riders from different teams chat and joke with each other before races; in the under-23s everyone would be trying to psych each other out.
Is the racing a big step up from what you?ve been doing with the Academy in Italy?
The style of racing we did in Italy is actually very similar to how the pros race. The big difference with the pros is the speed.
Is there anything you?ve specifically learnt from riding with T-Mobile?
The hardest thing I?ve found with T-Mobile is just how relaxed it all is. Being in the Academy, everything was very regimented. With T-Mobile it?s actually a lot more chilled out.
What is expected of you from the team?
What I think I?ve got to do is show that I can be part of the team, ride well, do the work that is expected of me, and also fit in socially. I think that is also really important when you?re a stagiaire; to show that you can be part of a professional organisation.
What do you expect to get out of being a stagiaire?
Hopefully a full professional contract ? ideally with T-Mobile. I?d like to be in the ProTour. The whole set-up suits me better and I like the way they ride. All I can do is ride my best and show how well I fit into the team.
Have you had any feedback?
No, not really. I?ve only ridden with the team in Denmark so far, but I think I did a good job and that the team were pleased with me. I?m giving it my best shot.
How did the arrangement come about?
I think T-Mobile had been in contact with BC. There had been talk about it all year but I only learnt that I was being taken on for sure about a week before the Tour of Denmark.
What is the rest of your programme like?
I?ve got the Tour of Britain next, then possibly the Hessen Tour. I?ll be riding the World Championships with the British team but should be doing some one-day races afterwards.
When and where do you think will be your best opportunity to impress?
At the Tour of Britain. Hopefully I?ll be allowed to ride a bit more for myself.
What do you see as your particular strengths?
I like rolling courses, but nothing too hilly. Racing in Belgium suits me, with the wind, the rain and the cobbles. I?m a bit of a Classics type of rider.
Mark Cavendish obviously made a big impact with his sprint. What?s yours like?
Compared to Cav I?m nothing, but when in a break I?d say I stand a pretty good chance of winning. I suppose I?m often stronger than the rest at the end of a race.
And you can time trial too?
Yes, that?s a real strength.
Your directors have to file a report on you after each race. Does that make you feel under pressure?
There is a bit of pressure there, but I?m here to do the best I can and that?s all I can do. In the Academy we?ve been taught to deal with pressure. I know what I?m meant to be doing and I?m doing that as best I can.
Do you get paid as a stagiaire?
No. I just get paid what I normally get from the Academy, but that doesn?t bother me. I?m not here to get paid. I?m here to make the most of the opportunity.
Tell us a little about how you came to arrive in this fortunate position.
When I was about 12, I did a little triathlon in Northampton and did OK. I joined a local cycling club and then became involved in Team Keyne with Bob Varney. Adam Blythe?s family helped me out with riding the track up in Manchester and that got me on the programme. Basically, I?ve taken all the opportunities that have come my way and tried to make the most of them.
How much do you think BC?s development programmes have helped you?
The whole set-up is brilliant. I like to think I would have made it without the Academy but it?s taught me a lot of life skills and other things very quickly. Without it I might not have found myself in this position until I was 23 or 24.
Cavendish, Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift also came via the Academy ? it?s starting to look a bit like a production line for professionals.
A lot of people call it a production line but you?ve still got to work
very hard to make it. The Academy obviously gives a huge amount of support and advice but you?ve got to really want it, work hard and live the lifestyle.
Why do you think a rider with an Academy background seems to be such an attractive prospect for professional teams?
They know the skills that the staff have. They know that the riders can look after their bikes, cope with the travelling and train well. They also think that British riders on the programme will be clean.
With the ongoing doping scandals out there, do you have any anxieties about graduating to the pro ranks?
No, none at all. I?m clean and that?s that. I?m not too fussed about what other people do. At the end of the day, people who cheat become lazy and I won?t become one of them.
Given the time to find your feet in the pro ranks, what qualities do you think you would take to a professional team?
I?m strong ? I can ride a lot at the front. I?m also good when it comes to lead-outs for sprinters ? I did quite a lot last year with Geraint, and a few with Cav too. Also, I think I?ve got the ability to win big races ? events like Paris-Roubaix and real Classics. If I could be the first British rider to win those, that would be pretty cool. But with Cav going like he is, that might be pretty difficult.
You genuinely see yourself winning Roubaix one day?
Yes, certainly. I?ve dreamt of Roubaix since I started cycling. I?ve ridden the junior version before and came second behind Geraint. I?d love to ride it if I turn pro next year ? all the Classics in fact. When I was younger I used to go out training and imagine I was in a break in it. I?ve dreamt about it for so long, I?ve just got to do it now!
Is there anyone you particularly look up to?
I used to like Johan Museeuw. He was a true Classics rider: dead strong and always attacking ? I like the way he rode. There were riders from home I looked up to too, like [UK based Kiwi] Gordon McCauley ? but now it?s good to beat him. Nowadays I look to Tom Boonen but also Cav, Geraint and Steve Cummings because they?ve all gone through the same
programme as me.
Like everyone in the Academy you?ve also done a lot of work on the track. Where does that fit in now?
I?m still on the track programme but focusing on the road at the minute to get a full-time place on a professional team. I just love riding a bike: cyclo-cross, mountain bike, track, road, whatever. We?ll be discussing it at the end of the season but I don?t think I?ll be riding the track at next year?s Olympics.
Since this interview was conducted, T-Mobile have pulled out as a team sponsor. The squad will be called Team High Road for the 2008 season.