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  • Zdenek Stybar: Racer to the Core

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    When the going gets tough, the triple cyclo-cross world champion gets going. On the ground with the Quick Step man talking Strade Bianche, Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders. And water-resistant flooring…

    Photographs: Quick Step
    Zdenek Stybar

    Start from a correct plank position, elbows directly below the shoulders. Push up your pelvis and hold this position for 10 sec. Keep your back straight and your stomach muscles flexed. Repeat 10 times.

     

    Back in 2007, on my first assignment as a budding cycling journalist, I spent a day with the Fidea cyclo-cross team – double and triple world champions respectively, Bart Wellens and Erwin Vervecken, included.

     

    We thrashed around in the woods on our bikes for an hour or so before, unsurprisingly, I got dropped and returned to the hotel, suitably humbled. Those guys may have just been playing around in the sand dunes, but I was in tatters.

     

    Later, once the riders had returned for lunch, it was noticable that the Flemish members of the team referred to the sole Walloon in the squad as “the foreigner”. It was ‘banter’, of course, but an indication of the complexities of life in a country split down the middle politically.

     

    There was a bona fide foreigner present that day, an up-and-coming Czech rider who did not attract his unfortunate team-mates’ sobriquet, or my attention, for that matter.

    Lay on your side, lean on your elbow and forearm. Make sure your elbow is positioned at a right angle to your shoulder. Place the hand of your other arm along your waist.

     

    Zdnek Stybar would go on to become a triple cyclo-cross world champion himself, cementing his place in the hearts of the Belgian nation, despite denying their beloved Sven Nys the rainbow jersey each time. Settling in Essen and marrying a local probably helped, but Flandrians respect young men and women a long way from home who are prepared to give their all for bike racing. And Zdenek Stybar gives everything.

     

    Take his two front teeth, for instance, lost in a collision with a barrier whilst defending his 2013 crown at the following year’s Eneco Tour. The cobbles of the 2015 Ronde van Vlaanderen rattled the replacement bridge loose and the unfortunate Stybar finished with a yawning chasm where his gleaming pearly whites should have been, an Instagram selfie posted after the race showing a man who appeared three times his age.

     

    Now, Stybar’s dentist has built a more permanent solution and his good looks have been restored, but there was no small amount of suffering involved. “It was hell on earth to get it right, more than a year,” he recalls. “I have never felt such pain.”

     

    Push up your pelvis and put your upper shoulder, elbow, hip and knee in a straight line.

     

    Less painful was the former ‘cross rider’s conversion to the road following his glittering seasons in the mud. You’d assume it was all part of a pre-determined career path to make the switch and reap the higher financial rewards of a contract with Quick Step, but Stybar describes it as more of a happy accident.

     

    “I didn’t know how to improve in cyclo-cross and thought I needed a better summer. It was a great opportunity to ride with this team,” he says of the offer from the Belgian super squad in 2011. “And I thought if it didn’t work out, I could go back to cyclo-cross.”

     

    It worked out fine and, apart from a successful return to once more lift the cyclo-cross world title in Hoogerheide in 2014, the Spring Classics have been the Czech’s focus.

     

    Quick Step core session
    Try to keep your pelvis still. Whatever you do, don’t lose tension in it. And don’t let your head hang down.

     

    And, of course, Strade Bianche, which Stybar won on his debut in 2015. “When I did it the first time, when I won, I loved it immediately. It is a hard race, 3,600m of climbing, the same as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but 100km shorter. You can be a climber, or a Classics rider – it is a matter of who arrives [at the finale] the strongest.”

     

    It was his finest road season so far, when the elusive Paris-Roubaix winner’s cobble came within touching distance. Seven men entered the velodrome together. It was Stybar’s misfortune that one of the seven happened to be John Degenkolb, a sprint the Quick-Step man was never likely to win.

     

    Once again, the Holy Trinity of Strade Bianche, Flanders and Roubaix are top targets. And eminently achievable, given the right circumstances. Stybar was second to an imperious Fabian Cancellara at last year’s Strade and has two top-ten finishes in the last two editions of De Ronde alongside his Roubaix runner-up position.

     

    Zdenek Stybar
    Don’t lose tension in your pelvis, try to keep it as still as possible.

     

    It must grate, I suggested, this notion that he has a major advantage in these races due to his cyclo-cross background. “A lot of people tell me that. ‘You will win with five minutes!” It’s not only me that did cyclo-cross. Maybe I get a little bit of an advantage on those races, because I can go a little bit more on feel, and choose the right lines on the cobblestones. At Strade Bianche, it is no stress to ride the gravel, it is fun. Maybe for others it is more stressful.

     

    “On the road it is very simple: if you have strong legs, you can be a contender. But I don’t think ‘cross is the only reason I can win Strade and be second in Roubaix…”

     

    A quick trick question to finish off. Time to drop the F-bomb: Zdenek, what sort of flooring do you have at home?

     

    “Quick Step,” he fires back, without missing a beat. There’s no catching this guy.

     

    This core stability training session was brought to you by Quick Step Majestic laminate, “the longest and widest laminate flooring ever”, according to the manufacturers.

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