The career of Robert Stannard feels a bit like what you hear from descriptions of a volcano eruption. There are tremors in the lead-up, warning signs of the inevitable explosion.
In Stannard, Australians and New Zealanders have been following the seismographs keenly for Mt Stannard for years, as we've known when this one blows, it's going to be big.
He's the sort of rider who looks like he's been formed in a laboratory in a quest to assemble the perfect cyclist, and while athletic looks in cycling can often flatter to deceive, Stannard proved from early on that he was a rare talent.
In some respects, he's not a long way from the young rider that showed that early promise, he's still awkward with journalists, finding the exact words to fit his meaning in answer to questions. But in other respects, he's added years of experience and racing into his legs, so much so that he and Team BikeExchange are very confident about what 2021 holds for Stannard.
“I’ve obviously learned a lot over the last few years and I’m getting the hang of how things work and how I perform best," said Stannard. "I’ve done starting in Australia and here, in Europe starting a bit later. I’ve seen what works for me and what doesn’t. I’m hoping this year I can use those things that I’ve learned about myself to help my performance.”
That learning process has resulted in a steady build for the 22-year-old, with the warning signs for the rest of the peloton present with a number of close finishes in the Vuelta and some Italian classics last year.
"The first year was always going to be about learning and developing and last year the goal was to be in the final of a lot of the races," said Stannard. "I achieved that and I saw a lot of times how close the winner of the race was to where I was. This year, my goal is to be winning races."
The Sydney-born Stannard is regarded as a one-day specialist, similar to Simon Gerrans or Michael Matthews in a lot of ways, with really impressive endurance, good climbing legs and a very solid sprint that only needs a slight incline to make it a good finish for him. However, Stannard shies away from being pigeon-holed at this stage of his career.
“That’s right, I do see myself there," said Stannard of those types of finishes. "Honestly, I don’t want to limit myself to ‘that’s my sort of race, that’s not’.
"I really like to think that every race is an opportunity. Maybe that hasn’t helped me in the past. I think it’s a benefit to focus on something and work to your strengths, which this year I’m trying to do more than past years, when I was trying to be really good at everything. Instead, I’m focusing more on one area, those hilly, punchy races.
"If I look at one guy I’d like to be like in my career, it’s Philippe Gilbert. He’s got an amazing palmares and I think that’s the style of rider I’d like to be. You’re not doing it correctly if you’re setting yourself low expectations."
It was a finish like that where Stannard showed where he might claim his breakthrough win, he rubbed shoulders with the best in the world on Stage 10 of La Vuelta, the stage when Primoz Roglic surprised everyone on the short, uphill finish to take out the win ahead of the puncheurs, with Stannard in fifth.
“I like those finishes like that and I would love to win a Grand Tour stage in a sprint finish in a similar way," said Stannard. "I remember in that finish, Primoz was two or three metres away and went on to win it. Now I’ve got the feeling how close it is, I think that’s important."
So what needs to improve for Stannard to make that next step?
"It’s obviously a bit of experience, confidence as well," said Stannard. "But in cycling, it always comes down to how strong you are as a cyclist, it comes down to your legs.
"It shows how important training is and being really focused in your day-to-day life. Always trying to improve every aspect. If you can do that correctly the results will come."
The early European season is going to be crucial for Stannard, not just in getting some leadership opportunities to take wins, but also to prove that he's worthy of a shot at the biggest race in the world, the Tour de France.
"I know I’m seen as more of a classic or one-day rider, but I’d like to be seen as a Grand Tour rider as well," said Stannard. "I’d love to do the Tour de France. If I can really prove myself and get some great results at the beginning of the year, there’s no reason that I couldn’t do the Tour de France this year.
'My program can change. I’m not really locked into one place in the team, there’s always the opportunity to move upwards.
"Not GC, I’m more of a stage winner. There’s always opportunities, always stages that suit a rider like me in those Grand Tours and if the team’s interested they normally send guys along with a dual role.
"They can work for the team leader, but also have a chance to go for stages. We saw that a few years ago with this team with Daryl Impey and Matteo Trentin."
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Team BikeExchange sports director Matt White was very positive about the chances of Stannard in 2021, tipping the young Aussie for a big improvement in early 2021.
"We’ve really looked after him the first few years, not pushing him too much," said White. "Last year he did his first Tour of Spain and he did a great job, handled the load and racing very well.
"I think in the spring this year you’re going to see a much-improved Rob Stannard. It happens with age and some guys develop faster than others but I think that big load that he had in the tail-end of 2020 is going to set him up well for the spring of 2021.
"Rob’s going to get some big opportunities in the classics and some of these spring races. We’ll see what Grand Tour he does, but we’re looking for big things from Rob."
With big expectations for Stannard from external sources, when it was put to him about what his personal goals were for 2021, Stannard didn't shy away from the spotlight.
"I would love to win a Grand Tour stage."