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If riders facing the prospect of not having a contract already means big pressure in the waning days of summer, that’s only compounded by an entire team seeing its future in doubt.
Those twin dynamics — riders chasing contracts and WorldTour teams desperate to hunt points — will be playing out in what will be the major narrative in the closing weeks and months of the men’s 2022 racing calendar.
And it played out Sunday in dramatic fashion in the otherwise minor one-day race at the Tour of Leuven-Memorial Jef Scherens.
The hotly contested race over the bergs of Flanders in and around last year’s world’s course saw an intense battle between Zdenek Štybar, the popular Czech rider who is off contract at the end of 2022, and Victor Campenaerts, whose Lotto Soudal team is facing relegation.
The pair pulled clear in the closing lap to fend off the chasing peloton by a fistful of seconds, with Campenaerts coming out on top in the two-up sprint.
The elation was pure in his first victory since winning a stage last year at the Giro d’Italia. But more importantly, it netted his employers much-needed points.
“As a pro cyclist, you only work towards one goal: winning races,” Campenaerts said. “It had been a while that I could raise my arms in the air and this really means a lot to me. As a cyclist, you make quite some sacrifices, but this victory makes it all worthwhile.”
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The victory comes as a boon for Lotto-Soudal, which only won one race since early June, and came up empty during the Tour de France with ace sprinter Caleb Ewan crashing.
Right now, the team is in a heated battle to stay within the WorldTour based on the UCI’s latest and controversial team rankings system.
The top-18 ranked team wills qualify for the next round of WorldTour licenses. Going into August, Lotto-Soudal is ranked 19th.
There are six teams within 1,000 points of each other battling for the bottom spots in the team rankings, so every win and every point is worth its weight in WorldTour gold in the closing weeks and months of the 2022 season.
“At Lotto Soudal, we are building a really nice project and this victory is another proof of that,” Campenaerts said. “And I am sure that a lot of moments like these are to come in the next weeks.”
Zdenek Štybar desperately chasing a victory
If there were champagne bottles and celebration inside the Lotto-Soudal bus with the victory, there was a mix of disappointment and encouragement from Štybar.
At 37 in December, the former cyclocross world champion is coming off two hellish years of illness and injury that saw his production plummet. His last victory came in early 2020 at the Vuelta a San Juan, just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic broke. His last major win was the E3 Harelbeke in the spring of 2019.
Racing in the final year of his contract, Štybar is out to prove to his bosses and other teams that he still deserves a spot in a WorldTour roster.
On Sunday, Štybar had the legs to ride away from the bunch with he and Campenaerts having everything in play.
“It’s disappointing because it’s the second time this week that I came close to taking the victory,” Štybar said. “At the same time, I’m also happy that I could be in this position to fight for a win.”
Though he was seventh in the 2021 road worlds on these very same roads, it’s only victories that count for the major teams. Štybar nearly won a stage last week at the Tour de Pologne, only getting pulled back in the closing 200m.
For Štybar, the situation is radically different than Campenaerts. While Lotto-Soudal is struggling to retain its WorldTour spot, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl is ranked safely near the top. The Belgian outfit has nothing to worry about in terms of its WorldTour future.
In a sign of respect for Štybar, the team gave him every opportunity to win Sunday.
“This morning the team told me they would pull for me, and this confidence they had in me was a major boost for me. It was a hard race and I gave my best during the day and in the break. In the sprint it was always going to be 50/50, I did everything, but it wasn’t enough,” Štybar said. “As I said, there is a disappointment, but I am also satisfied with having the form to be up there.”
Štybar said that team boss Patrick Lefevere that he will not have a spot on Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl for 2023.
Good legs breed confidence and vice versa. Štybar is hoping the elusive victory and perhaps another year or two in the peloton are in his immediate future.