There is much talk of a new generation of Classics kings: of the men who will replace Boonen and Cancellara when age finally wearies these modern day greats.
The list of candidates rolls easily from the tongue of any close observer of professional cycling, headed by Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff and John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), but likely also to include Zdeněk Štybar, winner this year of the Strade Bianche and second at Paris-Roubaix and E3 Harelbeke.
Štybar is a star even in the galaxy of talent at Etixx-Quick Step, though you’d be hard pressed to find a more modest individual, despite the film star looks and decorated palmarès. He returned to Belgium for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, ready to race, having only recently finished a demanding cobbled Classics campaign with second place at Paris-Roubaix.
“I’m happy to be part of this group of guys who should fight for the wins in the coming years,” he says of the predicted new order of Classics grandees. This was always his plan, since switching from cyclo-cross to the road, a difficult task that few have managed with success. The greatest challenge therein, Štybar believes, is overcoming the deficit in accumulated knowledge of the various parcours that those who have ridden the road for years possess.
Three world cyclo-cross titles speak volumes for Štybar’s ability in his former discipline, but such has been his impact on the peloton that it’s easy to forget he only made the switch to the road in 2012. “I’m kind of new in road cycling: it’s only my third full road season,” he says. “It’s hard work, but luckily I feel that every year I make a little progress, and I still feel I have some progression in front of me.”
There are only a handful of riders in the peloton who rode an Ardennes Classic this season, having also competed on the cobbles. Štybar was among them. Liège was a new experience. He rode the Amstel Gold Race last year, but by his own admission, without the mental freshness or strength to fight for position “before each roundabout and each turn”.
The cobbled races bring a more obvious show of strength, but there is no easy ride on offer in the Ardennes, only a different challenge, and no less demanding. More tactical, perhaps? Štybar smiles. “It’s mainly the legs.”
This year, he prepared for the Ardennes in Mallorca, there to find a climbing rhythm, after taking three days off the bike after Paris-Roubaix. The "Queen of the Classics" brought another heroic performance from the Czech champion, pipped on the line this year by Degenkolb after a thrilling pursuit that saw him chase down a fully-committed Bradley Wiggins in the latter stages, before latching on to the eventual winner. It was the twin pursuit of the Sky leader, Štybar believes, that cost him the energy required to jump clear of Degenkolb and avoid a sprint finish.
What are his memories now of the race? “Roubaix is…” he pauses. “Roubaix is Roubaix, I would say. Second place is kind of tough, of course, but when you go in the sprint with Degenkolb, you know it will be really hard to beat him. Twice, I had to bridge a gap, first to make 10 or 15 seconds on Wiggins in a tough race, and I think that cost me a lot of energy, maybe enough to make the last jump before the velodrome.
“I got back into the first group with John and Greg [van Avermaet], but I didn’t have the legs anymore to try another attack and try to ride away from them. Ok, I took second place. Every year, I’ve made progress there: sixth, fifth, and second, so I hope that the progression will continue.”
This last comment is delivered with a chuckle; an acknowledgement, perhaps, that winning Roubaix is not as simple as climbing the rungs of a ladder. In this most unpredictable race, next year might bring nothing at all – or everything. What Štybar knows already is that hard races on rough surfaces are his forte; witness his victory at Strade Bianche.
The Tuscan race has quickly become a favourite with the peloton and tifosi alike, and while the prestige of victory does not match that of Paris-Roubaix, it is among the most respected of an elite coterie of races that lie just beyond the hallowed ground of the Monuments; equal in stature, let’s say, to E3 or Amstel. This is an impressive achievement in so short a time: Štybar’s victory came in only its ninth edition. He agrees that it is special race – and hilly, too. “There’s a lot of climbing, actually,” he reflects. “It’s all day - just climbing.”
His ability to stay with the likes of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), the third man home in Siena, speaks volumes for Štybar’s capacity for the short steep ramps of Spring, though he is unlikely ever to match a specialist like Valverde in a Grand Tour. That said, when Štybar began the steep ascent into the Piazza del Campo, in the company of the Movistar leader and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), most people’s money would have been on the Spaniard. Štybar’s apparent calmness when Van Avermaet launched the opening assault was as impressive as his ability to respond. Did he feel victory was within his grasp?
“Of course, it’s very difficult, when you are there with those two guys. When you are in the final with Valverde in an uphill finish, you know that it’s going to be really tough. I knew also that Van Avermaet had been going really well. I knew just that I must be first with 500m to go, or 300m to go, in the last two turns. That’s what I had in my mind. Of course, Van Avermaet went, I saw that Valverde couldn’t follow, so I tried directly to catch Van Avermaet. At the top I said, Ok, I just have to overtake him.”
It’s a wonder Štybar is racing a bike at all, never mind winning races, after a terrible crash at last season’s Eneco Tour, when he collided with the protruding “feet” of a crash barrier in a bunch sprint into Ardooie. Such negligence seems absurd, but more recent events at the Tour of the Basque Country, where metal poles brought down a host of riders in another bunch sprint, proves that there is much to be done if race organisers are to realise their responsibilities.
Štybar’s accident flipped him over the bars and drove him into the ground, face first, at considerable speed. He has needed reconstructive surgery, but his even tone as he describes the savage incident dispels any sense that the mental scars might be deeper. Surprisingly, he is able to remember the details of the crash, after momentarily blacking out and returning to consciousness unaware even of where he was.
It seems typical of Štybar that, when addressing whether organisers should do more to protect riders, he chooses to praise those who get it right, notably the team behind the Tour of Flanders, who this year stationed marshalls at every roundabout and speed hump. He is adamant, however, that barriers of the type that brought him down must be removed from the sport.
He has praise also for those who encouraged him to return to the bike at the earliest opportunity. Štybar returned to racing at last year’s World Championships in Ponferrada despite being “in no way ready”, and won the UCI 1.1 Binche-Chimay-Binche, in his penultimate race of the season.
A rider who can compete in the Northern Classics and the Ardennes is valuable indeed. Etixx-QuickStep is not short of talent, but even among such illustrious company, Štybar is an asset. The Czech champion combines modesty off the bike with ferocity on it. When the new order of Classics kings is established, expect to find his name near the top.