Usually the first part of a late February weekend double-header alongside Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad kicks off the Belgian cycling season, with its blend of cobbles, climbs and inclement weather packing a punch as heavy as the local beer. Since its first edition back in 1945, the race – initially called the Omloop Het Volk before the two rival newspapers merged – has enjoyed a particular prominence for Belgian cyclists.
Rolling into the 2021 season, 57 out of 75 winners have been Belgian – with three of the past five editions won by local Lowlanders. But before Greg Van Avermaet won back-to-back editions in 2016 and 2017, Stannard, the now-retired Team Sky Classics hardman, did the double – first by outlasting Van Avermaet at the end of a gnarly edition in 2014, then, most memorably, by outfoxing three Quick-Step riders on home roads.
When Stannard pulled off the first of his wins, it meant the hosts had enjoyed only a single victory in six editions, with Quick-Step – the biggest team in Belgium – having last stood atop the podium way back in 2005, with Nick Nuyens. That all looked set to change one year on when the defending champion found himself persona non grata in a four-man move at the sharp end of the 70th edition of Omloop. But the longer the Quick-Step trio of Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh struggled to pull out the thorn in their side, the more likely it looked that Stannard was going to pull off the surprise of the century.
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This is the story of how an underappreciated British powerhouse emerged from the shadow of his other more illustrious Sky teammates to become king for a day in Flanders.

Setting the scene: first British win

Before 2014, no British rider had ever won Omloop. Ian Stannard changed that. The floodgates had hardly opened for Stannard after his maiden pro win in the Tour of Austria in 2011. His only return to the top step of the podium came in the 2012 national championships – a week before he was omitted from the Sky team that supported Bradley Wiggins to Tour glory that summer.
Stannard would, however, help guide Chris Froome to the Yellow Jersey one year later. The then-26-year-old had built a reputation as a solid domestique with a powerful engine that could be deployed with efficacy on the flat and in one-day races. It was these one-day races – particularly the cobbled Classics – that most interested Stannard. In his own words, they "captured me in a way the Grand Tours don't".
It was on a miserable Saturday afternoon in late February 2014 that Stannard made his career breakthrough. In driving rain and freezing temperatures, he joined forces with local Flemish favourite Greg Van Avermaet with 14km remaining – with Dutchman Niki Terpstra, the Belgian Sep Vanmarcke and Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky's Plan B) in pursuit.
In any normal finale, Van Avermaet would be a shoo-in to win a sprint against the burly Stannard. But off the back of 200 painful kilometres in the saddle, it was less about pure speed than it was heat retention and tactics. The BMC rider found himself on the front as the duo approached the line. And, when Stannard launched from his opponent’s wheel from an ambitious 300m out, Van Avermaet just did not have enough left in the tank.
"I'd always been up there, but it was nice to do a ride like that and beat Greg," Stannard says. "He had the pedigree, but it's all very different sprinting one-on-one at the end of a hard 200km race when it's been wet and cold. What comes out the legs is totally different."
Stannard was not able, however, to build directly on his biggest win to date. A heavy crash two weeks later in Gent-Wevelgem forced him off the bike for three months with a fractured vertebra. Having missed the Tour, Stannard made his comeback at the Prudential RideLondon Classic, followed by the Eneco Tour. But a broken wrist sustained during a fall in the opening stage of the Tour of Britain called time on what had, in all, been a frustrating season.
Talk about being brought back down to earth.

Ian Stannard (L) of Team Sky sprints to glory against Greg Van Avermaet (R) of BMC Racing Team

Image credit: Getty Images

Omloop 2015: the pressure of protected status

With the number 1 pinned on his jersey at the following year’s Omloop, Stannard was given leadership of a Sky team that boasted Britain's first Tour winner. In his last season for Sky, Wiggins was preparing for a final tilt at Paris-Roubaix. Alongside Bernie Eisel, who was also sporting a bushy beard, the soon-to-be Eurosport pundit and podcast legend put in a solid shift for Sky to pave the way for the defending champion.
"Brad was really great, and he was up for helping out and all that," Stannard recalls. "I probably felt a little bit more pressure having the number one on my back. But it was great everyone getting behind me as the lead rider for the day. I knew the legs were good, but it was up to me to get up there again and prove I could do it. We had one goal – and that was to win it again. Everyone rode to that, and it worked out really well. When you have someone as strong as Brad or Bernie, you're going to do that."
While there was no sign of the rain that hampered the previous edition, it was another typically cold winter's day in Belgium. "There was a bit of wind about, but nothing crazy – nothing to get you in the team car," Stannard says.
Starting and finishing in Ghent, the 70th edition of Omloop featured 11 climbs and 10 cobbled sections, including a handful that regularly adorn the Ronde van Vlaanderen. As well as the Taaienberg, the Valkenberg, the Molenberg and the mythical Muur van Geraardsbergen; a new climb, the Kaperij, had been introduced after 120km of the 200km race.
"You race and train on these cobble sections a lot, so you know where you're going, which landmarks to look out for before you approach them," Stannard says. "But you don't know them like the back of your hand, like some of these Belgian riders who live there and train on them every day. You learn to pick up on the details, as you do in the recons – some of the landmarks, like the chimneys, help you get your bearings."
Stannard was among the pre-race favourites alongside the likes of Norway's Alexander Kristoff, Terpstra and Vanmarcke, whose victory in 2012 was the only Belgian win in the past six editions. Three years after his second Flanders-Roubaix double, Tom Boonen, Terpstra's Etixx–Quick-Step teammate, was also among the hotly-tipped riders. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was the only cobbled Classic still eluding the then 34-year-old superstar.

Break brought back, BMC bristling

A nine-man move extricated itself from the peloton in the first 10km and built up a six-minute lead. It was not until the race had passed over the Muur that Quick-Step, Sky and Vanmarcke's LottoNL-Jumbo took control, with the bearded duo of Wiggins and Eisel doing the lion's share of pacing duties – not only to reduce the lead of the break, but to separate the wheat from the chaff in the main pack.
"I don't remember much about the early part, but I had a really good ride," Stannard recalls. "It's not so much about neutralising the break as about being on the front to get into the sections right. The speed of the peloton naturally picks up and you bring back time on the breakaway. Once you get to the climbs you'll go a little easier earlier on, maybe the break will go out a bit more, then you get that stress and build-up in the peloton, and it all speeds up again into the next section. And that's kind of how the breakaway gets neutralised."

The early breakaway potters along at Omloop 2015

Image credit: Getty Images

And this was exactly what happened. Sky upped the tempo with 90km remaining before easing up after some remonstrations from Van Avermaet's BMC team. The British team took it up again with 70km remaining, before blowing the pack apart just ahead of the Taaienberg. It was here, on his feted stomping ground, where Boonen stretched his legs – and stretched out the pack even further. A new lead group formed after the struggling escapees were caught, before another easing up prompted Sky to send Luke Rowe up the road, the Welshman joining Matt Brammeier and Albert Timmer – the only two riders from the initial break still out ahead.
"You know where the important bits are – the hard bits where it's going to break up," Stannard says, explaining the death throes of the breakaway and the concertina effect that disrupts what remains of the pack. "You know the bits where, if someone goes up the road, they're only going to get 10 or 15 seconds before the next cobble section or climb when that pressure is back in the peloton and everyone wants to be on the front again."

Quick-Step force final selection

On the Haaghoek cobble section, just ahead of the Leberg, the penultimate climb, Boonen thrashed out a hefty tempo to force a selection with Stannard on his wheel. Commentating for the international feed, Rob Hatch, now a mainstay in Eurosport's Grand Tour and classics coverage, started to wax lyrical about Etixx–Quick-Step's strength in depth. With good reason.
"The great thing about this team is that they have options," Hatch said. "They can be the object and possibility of personal glory, but the good thing about Boonen is that he's always happy when somebody in the team wins. Today might be slightly different for it's the only hole in his cobblestone palmares really."
Exiting the cobbles, Vanmarcke, with a puncture, skidded out on a tight left-hander. In the striking yellow kit of LottoNL-Jumbo, the Dutchman remounted, but quickly raised his arm to signal a bike change at the worst possible moment – just as Boonen's Quick-Step teammate Vandenbergh began the tempo-setting for the Belgian team.
"Because this is a real bike race, no one waits for the man in yellow." That was how journalist Cosmo Catalano called it – a nod to the traditions of the Tour de France. Those traditions certainly seem a far cry from the chaotic hustle-bustle of the business end of a Classic.
The puncture for the otherwise sprightly Vanmarcke caused a split and saw four riders go clear. In the commentary box, Hatch was impressed by the team that now accounted for 75 per cent of the leading quartet: "So, three from Etixx–Quick-Step – Terpstra, Boonen, Vandenbergh – alongside last year's winner, Ian Stannard. This is a real deluxe group and we're now onto the Leberg. What a move from Etixx–Quick-Step."
Vanmarcke fought back to lead a tracing trio alongside compatriot Van Avermaet and a fourth Quick-Step rider, the Czech champion Zdenek Stybar. It was all perfectly poised for a thrilling finale with, surely, only one outcome: rather than questioning if Quick-Step would win, it was a case of which of its four leading lights would deliver the killer blow.

Three against one, or four v three?

If the odds seemed stacked in Quick-Step's favour, it wasn't as simple as Patrick Lefevere's team having a three-in-four chance of winning. With no teammates behind, Stannard had the luxury of having zero obligation to pull on the front. By the same token, Stybar did nothing to help Van Avermaet and Vanmarcke in the chase, safe in the knowledge that he had three teammates around 30 seconds up the road.
Looking back, did Stannard prefer his chances on his own against three Quick-Step riders? Or would he have better fancied it in a larger group of seven, with four from the same Belgian team?
"Neither are a great situation, are they?” he says. “I think, in my head, they were letting me sit on and I was like: 'Awesome! If I play my cards right, I could get on the podium here.' Winning it wasn't going through my head, to be honest. At that 40k point, I just thought: 'Phwoar, it's going to be a difficult one, this!'"
Understandably, Stannard found himself playing out all the different scenarios in his head. He understood that the three riders pulling him along clearly wanted to maintain the gap over the chasers, no doubt fearing what the two ‘Vans’ in pursuit could do. But there was also the potential Stybar card to play, the Czech clearly enjoying something of a purple patch.
"Then in my head, I'm like: 'Jesus, there's three of them!'” says Stannard. “I was kind of overrun. At some point they were going to attack or get me to ride for them. But I couldn't believe how far they let me get towards the finish."
Indeed, the group had gone over the final climb of the day, the Molenberg, and were approaching the final cobble section of Lange Munte with 20km remaining – and still no huge effort had been made to distance Stannard. Did this surprise the defending champion?
"For sure,” is his answer. “There were crosswinds on the Lange Munte, and I was like: ‘They're going to force my hand here, make me start riding, or put me completely in the gutter and make me suffer in the crosswinds and force me through.’ But they kind of just rode up the middle of the cobbles, gave me a merry ride, and I was like: 'Wow, okay…' That was probably where I started believing, well: 'We're getting close to the finish line, they haven't done me over yet – it's looking good.'"
With the chasers coming to within 13 seconds, it was still touch-and-go for the four leaders – something that must have played its part in the mindset of Boonen, Terpstra and Vandenbergh. It's also worth remembering that team radios were banned for that edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, so there was no way for the Quick-Step DS to relay any information to his riders.
"I don't know what was going through their heads.” Stannard says. "They were obviously pretty confident. But if I was in their position, I'd have made myself ride. I couldn't believe they didn't, really. But no, I didn't feel obliged to ride at all – why would I? One against three – there's no way I'm going through."
As Ghent got closer and closer, Stannard was hitching a ride on the Etixx–Quick-Step express. An unwanted guest in what Boonen would later describe to him on the podium as "a nice team time trial", Stannard hadn't punched his ticket. Surely he was going to be booted out of the first class carriage before it reached its destination?

Ian Stannard sticks to Quick-Step trio Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh

Image credit: Getty Images

Quick-Step make a hash of things

Six kilometres from the finish, the leaders pass over the Schelde river. The three Quick-Step riders still have to solve a problem named Stannard.
"How do they play it tactically?" Hatch mused in the commentary box. "Are they content to just ride Ian Stannard in? He's going to be the freshest of the four riders. Pretty sure about that. He's the guy that's done no work at the back."
For Stannard's part, it was hard to pick out one rider over the others; he had to keep tabs on all three. "They all ride for Quick-Step,” he explains. “They all live in that territory. They all want to win that race. They're all dangermen. They were some of the best riders in the world. Two of them won Roubaix, the other one's been up there in Flanders."
As it happened, it was Quick-Step's best sprinter – the apparent ace up their sleeve – who made the first big move. Boonen, the four-time Paris-Roubaix and triple Tour of Flanders winner, went with 4.6km remaining – to the delight of Hatch.
"Oh, here goes Boonen! Here goes Tom Boonen! He's not waiting for the sprint today – and Stannard will have to go with him. It's no use looking around, Ian Stannard, he is going to have to go. And I'm not sure what he has here. Boonen goes alone and Stannard is forced to chase. And Boonen has this win on a plate if he can ride it away."
But riding it away is exactly what Boonen failed to do. Deep into his illustrious career and even deeper into the 70th edition of a race he had never before won, the Belgian clearly didn't fancy his chances in a slugfest against Stannard. Perhaps mindful of how the Briton despatched Van Avermaet a year before, as well as the fading zip in his own 34-year-old legs, Boonen went for broke.
"He had tried to save a little energy before he went, so I was prepped for it in my head," says Stannard. "I knew he'd go and attack me. To be honest, I thought he'd wait longer and go for a sprint. I thought they'd get one of the others to attack and try to soften me up a little first. But he went, and in my head, I was like: 'Right, that's one of them up the road'. I hadn't ridden yet so I knew I just had to ride up to him nice and steady, make it take a kilometre or a k-and-a half without anyone else attacking me, then just edge my way to the finish line."
If Boonen was unable to land the killer blow, that's not to say that his team didn't still have the edge. Indeed, Hatch still had his feet firmly in the Quick-Step camp, lauding their "wonderful position" with both Terpstra and Vandenbergh in reserve, and the fact that, collectively, they were “wearing Stannard down”.
When Stannard eventually reeled Boonen in while dragging the other two across, it looked like Hatch had read the race perfectly: Quick-Step played the old one-two and Terpstra put in an almost instant acceleration that should have been enough to bring his team their first win in Ghent for a decade. But then the unthinkable happened.
“We caught Tom and I knew they were going to come straight over the top,” Stannard explains. "So I didn't want to ride up to him as fast as I could. I tried to lose my speed a bit as we approached him. We were on the left side of the road, so I wanted to stay to the right of his wheels so I had some manoeuvrability. I didn't want to get boxed in. Then Niki came over the top and Stijn, I think, tried to go with him, but never really got on his wheel, so just created a bridge across. At that point, I came out of their slipstream and thought: ‘F*** it. Go!’”
Watching the replays back, Vandenbergh's move still seems inexplicable. At that point in his career, the 30-year-old had just two pro wins to his name – a stage and the overall in the 2007 Tour of Ireland. Outfoxed by the Italian Luca Paolini in the 2013 edition of Omloop, Vandenbergh had finished fourth in Flanders in 2014 and was a key part of Quick-Step's support for their big-hitters.
But perhaps he sniffed out a rare opportunity to be the bride for the day? For the consummate bridesmaid would surely have boxed Stannard in alongside Boonen while teammate Terpstra rode clear? Instead, he tried to join the Dutchman, inadvertently opening the door for Stannard and acting as a springboard to let the outsider back into the race.
And yet, to emphasise how much things were still very much in the balance, Vandenbergh's move could still in the heat of the moment be seen as a masterstroke, with Hatch exclaiming: "Brilliant, brilliant tactical stop by Etixx–Quick-Step, really putting Ian Stannard under pressure."

Stannard defies logic to surge to win

This, however, was the turning point for Stannard – albeit one of many, and certainly not the last. Propelling himself from Vandenbergh's slipstream, he managed to sweep past Terpstra and open a small gap over his adversaries with just under 3km remaining.
"I thought: 'Wow, they've messed this up a little bit,'” he explains. “So I just put my head down and went for it."
The surge saw the elastic snap for Vandenbergh. Three against one became two versus one, with Stannard's chances, at least mathematically, improving. And with Boonen flailing, it was left to Terpstra to put out the fire.
"Surely Etixx–Quick-Step can't mess this one up!" an incredulous Hatch called, the Flemish penny starting to drop. He then added, irrefutably: "Stannard has ridden like an absolute machine today. He is not going to go down without a fight."
Entering the final 2km, Boonen was fighting to close the two-second gap that separated him from the leaders. Stannard could not afford to ease up – especially with the Stybar chase group perhaps still in with a sniff. Once Terpstra had caught him, he admits he was resigned to being beaten.
"You know what – I was fine with that,” says Stannard. “I just put my head down. I could see that Tom wasn't far behind and I thought: 'As long as he doesn't catch us, I've got second. That's pretty good in a pretty bad situation.'"
Under the flamme rouge, it looked like it would be a two-horse race – but one that was very different from the Stannard-Van Avermaet showdown a year earlier.
"The year before, I could slow down, play cat-and-mouse a little bit, and come from behind," Stannard recalls. "Whereas this time, I was on the front and having to ride hard because Tom was just behind us. I had no choice but to ride to the line, really, without being caught and possibly coming third."

Ian Stannard of Team Sky and Niki Terpstra of Quick-Step sprint for the finish of Omloop

Image credit: Getty Images

Far from handing it on a silver platter for Stannard, Terpstra nevertheless gave his opponent all he needed to finish off the job. For with the finish line approaching, the reigning Roubaix champion came to the front to give the Sky rider the clear tactical advantage that even a large deviation off his sprint line would not be able to reverse.
Here’s Stannard again: "Niki kind of rolled over me about 300m to go, and gives me a little look: 'Go on, jump on my wheel, mate, and I'll take you the rest of the way.' I even remember in that moment thinking: 'Oh my god, I can't believe you've done that…' He only had to stay on my wheel with 50m to go and he would have had me. Just to roll over me that early, I was like: 'Jesus…'"
Terpstra's early move gave Stannard the time he needed to compose himself and jump back into the Dutchman’s slipstream, powering through with the finish line gaping. "He obviously tried the little flick," Stannard says, remembering the deviation. "I probably can't repeat what went through my head at that point… It was all in slow motion… But by the line, it was half a bike length."
"Oh my word!" Hatch called the finale in disbelief. "That is a wonderful win for Ian Stannard. And Etixx–Quick-Step – how have they managed to lose that? Shake of the head from Tom Boonen. And never, ever underestimate Ian Stannard. But they really should have had the race sewn up."
For Stannard, along with the elation came the relief that he had closed a bad chapter in his career and bounced back from injury with such aplomb – especially with the added pressures of wearing the number 1 on his back.
"I'd had three months off the bike after breaking my back and didn't have a huge amount of the season the year before to get my racing legs back before the winter break,” he explains. “I felt like I'd lost a bit of speed, so it was nice – a relief, let's say – to have got round that situation with three Quick-Step riders and to show that I was back with the win."

Fallout: Quick-Step odds-on, but at odds

This is how Cosmo Catalano covered the unlikely series of events that led up to the final sprint: "The gap is close enough that Stannard had no option to cat-and-mouse, which is still less bad for him because he doesn't have a punchy acceleration, but as he showed last year, can definitely hold off riders from the front.
"Maybe that's what Terpstra was thinking, passing him nearly 300m out. There was a raging tail-wind… But just NO! Terpstra has the ability to open some space up on Stannard, but does it too far out, leaving the Sky rider 150m to juggernaut his way up to speed.
"Terpstra attempts to complicate things in the final 100m by diving towards the barriers but despite the extremely late pass, the Sky rider still comes around with enough inevitability to celebrate before the line.
"And that," Catalano delivered with his trademark closing statement, "was how the race was… lost."

Ian Stannard celebrates on the podium alongside Niki Terpstra (L) and Tom Boonen (R)

Image credit: Getty Images

A fair statement? The man who won agrees – but with a few caveats.
"Yeah, they lost it," Stannard says. "But I definitely managed to play my cards well and think it out well on the road. You know, not sprinting back to Tom as fast as I could or chasing as hard as I can, when they were jumping over the top, as hard as they can, and I was getting hit by them repeatedly. So, ultimately, they lost it. But I kind of won it a little bit by just staying cool and playing it as best as I could."
Of course, Etixx–Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere saw things a little differently, chastising Stannard's failure to work with his riders in the finale. For his part, Boonen regretted attacking when he did instead of waiting for a final sprint.
But once the dust settled, Lefevere said that he would not have asked his riders to have done anything differently. "We did what we did and we lost," he said. "Stannard won. That's the conclusion." A classic Lefevere summing up, if ever there was one.
While they held a numerical advantage, Quick-Step did find themselves in a tactical quandary – especially with Stybar in the chase group shadowing the dangerous Vanmarcke and Van Avermaet, which gave Stannard free reign to sit back and hitch a lift. Even Team Sky's Belgian sports director that day, Servais Knaven, conceded that it was "not easy" for Quick-Step, stressing that, without race radios, the situation on the road was not as simple as it looked for those watching on TV at home.
Referring to the moment he drove alongside Stannard ahead of the final, Knaven later admitted that he said: "If they get closer, you will have to work, because we have no one else behind. You'll have to just go for the podium." In that respect, it helped Stannard that Sky's next rider, Luke Rowe, was almost five minutes back and out of the equation.
The need for Boonen, Terpstra and Vandenbergh to keep riding hard to distance Vanmarcke, the 2012 winner, was understandable. But it didn't explain the individual tactical blunders made by all three Quick-Step riders in the final 5km – from Boonen's early attack to Vandenbergh's chasing down of Terpstra's move and the Dutchman's decision at the death to pass Stannard and lead him out.
As another staff member from a rival team would remark: it was "a good result for cycling". Speaking to Cycling Weekly, he elaborated: "Team Sky are maybe not the most popular among the other teams, but everyone cheered this win for Stannard."
"Yeah, that's definitely true," Stannard says. "Afterwards, riders that I'd never even spoken to before were coming up, patting me on the back and saying well done."

What happened next: Stannard and Boonen denied in Roubaix

The next day, Etixx–Quick-Step were back to winning ways with Mark Cavendish at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, before Zdenek Stybar won Strade Bianche one week after finishing seventh in Ghent.
But in the other cobbled and hilly Classics, Lefevere's frustration continued with a string of second places in Le Samyn (Gianni Meersman), E3 Harelbeke (Stybar, behind Sky's Geraint Thomas), Gent-Wevelgem (Terpstra), the Tour of Flanders (also Terpstra), Paris-Roubaix (Stybar again), La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (with Julian Alaphilippe finishing behind Alejandro Valverde on both occasions).
Tom Boonen missed the spring Classics campaign after crashing out early in Paris-Nice. He would never win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and it was not until 2019 – 14 years after Nick Nuyens – that Quick-Step would win the race again, through Stybar.
So often underappreciated at Quick-Step, Terpstra would join the second-tier French team Total Direct Enérgie in 2018 after a successful spring campaign that saw him win Le Samyn, E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders. He has not won a bike ride since. After five years lugging coal for the Quick-Step Classics engine, Stijn Vandenbergh left the team in 2016. He retired at the end of 2020 after four seasons at AG2R-La Mondiale.
Stannard took a podium in the British National Championships later that year before playing an important role in helping teammate Chris Froome to a second Tour de France crown in July. But there would be no third successive Omloop Het Nieuwsblad win. Stannard opted to skip the race in 2016. Later that spring, however, Stannard equalled the best-ever British result in Paris-Roubaix with third place behind the Australian Mat Hayman, who denied Boonen a record-breaking fifth win.
"It was frustrating to be so close but so far, yet on the other hand it was confirmation that I could get up there," Stannard says of Roubaix. “I just needed to get it right. But, again, that then puts so much pressure on myself. That almost made me flop afterwards. I never really learned how to deal with that pressure in my head."
Stannard won stages in the Tour of Britain in 2016 and 2018 but he never came close to winning another Classic. In the winter of 2020, following a frustrating injury-hit season at Ineos, he retired from the sport aged 33 after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
Reminiscing over his long career, was his second victory in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad perhaps the best of his seven pro wins?
"They're all different," says Stannard. "But I look back now and it was pretty awesome to beat those riders from a Belgian team on their home turf. It doesn't really get any better than that, does it?"
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