Hitting his stride: Five keys to Stybar’s Harelbeke victory

Luck, legs, teammates and know-how coming together perfectly mean Stybar goes into Flanders one of the hot favorites.

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) is on a roll. And momentum counts for a lot in the northern classics.

The popular former world cyclo-cross champion is finally hitting a “purple patch” after being the classic’s nearly-man during much of the past half decade. The 33-year-old swept to victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and then finished off another DQS tactical flourish Friday to win E3 BinckBank Classic.

Everyone knows Stybar’s travails over the years. A collision with a fan at Roubaix and some tactical errors cost him chances to win over the past few years. Things are lining up this year. Here’s why Stybar is riding the winning wave:

Experience counts in the northern classics

It’s rare to see a very young or inexperienced rider win big in the northern classics. Sure, there are the occasional one-offs, like Tom Boonen, who won his first monument at 25. Typically it takes riders a few years to get into the groove in the northern classics, where experience, road knowledge, and tactical acumen all prove decisive.

“The biggest change for me is more experience,” Stybar said. “Every year I learn something new. It’s what makes a difference.”

This is now Stybar’s seventh season in the big leagues, and he knows the races and roads as well as any local rider.

“Now I know where I really have to fight to be in front, where I can be in 5th, where I need to be in 2nd, where I can be in 200th,” he said. “It’s something that makes a big difference in the final.”

Luck on his side

It’s not just experience, but it’s also that all the pieces are falling into place. Sometimes a rider can be strong, but make a tactical mistake. Someone can have a good race, and simply be bettered by a stronger rival. A flat tire, an ill-timed crash, or a mechanical can deflate six months of hard work in an instant. Or, like in Stybar’s case, hit a fan on the side of the road at Paris-Roubaix and derail his chances for victory as he did in 2013.

“You have some years when you are in really good shape but have no result,” he said. “Or you are there but not sprinting for wins. This year, the condition is good and I’m there at the right moment.”

Riding the DQS wave

Another key factor for Stybar is his team. Deceuninck-Quick-Step is the Los Angeles Lakers of the northern classics. Not only does the team live and breathe for the Flemish races, they also play a numbers game to step up in the decisive moments.

On Friday, the team once again played a near-perfect tactical hand. Having Bob Jungels up the road as a legitimate danger man put pressure on Stybar’s rivals to chase. Sure, Stybar had to have the jets to follow the moves, but he wasn’t in the wind until the very end, leaving him fresh to fend off his rivals in the sprint.

“(After Jungels went), I don’t want to say it was easy from behind, but we just had to cover some attacks and be in good position in the key places,” he said. “With the team it is really impressive. I think almost everyone from our team can win. It makes the biggest difference for us.

“I don’t think it was a suicide mission for Bob,” he continued. “I think everyone had seen what he has done. But with Bob or [Julian] Alaphilippe, they are so strong they can do what you want.”

The departure of defending Flanders champion Niki Terpstra to Direct Energie also opens up some space for Stybar, who’s wasted no time taking advantage of the opening.

Having the legs

Of course, it’s one thing to have experience, good luck, and a loaded team, but there’s no hiding in the classics. There are no fluke winners at a race as intense and difficult as Harelbeke.

“I also covered the big attacks from Greg,” Stybar said. “Maybe I was a bit lucky that I was on that moment right on his wheel. But I needed the legs to follow him. At that moment I was hoping Bob Jungels could go as far as he can. It put me in a really good position.

“It was a lot of pressure and I was happy that I could finish it off,” he said.

Carrying momentum into Flanders

Another “X” factor in the classics is that elusive and magical power of momentum. We’ve seen over the years; a rider hits the form of their career, and rattles off one big win after another. Greg Van Avermaet lived that type of once-in-a-career run in 2017, when he won four major one-day races, including his first monument at Paris-Roubaix, across the spring classics.

Could Stybar be this year’s “big Mo” man?

“Yeah, why not?” he said when asked if he’s the favorite for Flanders. “I made a big change from cyclo-cross to road to get those results, so now all I have to do is have fun and enjoy the situation and the condition. I have won two races, so it gives me some confidence.”

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