The Luxembourg champion is a winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège but this spring he has been deployed in the cobbled classics of northern Belgium for the first time in his career. After just five races, he’s being talked about as the leading light for Patrick Lefevere’s team at the Tour of Flanders. None other than Tom Boonen, QuickStep legend and three-time winner of De Ronde, has named the 26-year-old as his favourite for Sunday.
Jungels cut a relaxed figure at Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s pre-Tour of Flanders press conference on Friday, held at the headquarters of new sponsor Deceuninck. He wore his leadership status lightly.
“All week long there’s a lot of discussion in the media, on TV channels, but, in the end, it’s going to come down to the race," he said.
"I’m very honoured of course to be named among the favourites, but, in the end, it will be the race that shows who crosses line first and then the whole week of speculation is over.”
Jungels finds himself at the centre of this speculation – which intensifies perennially in the build-up to the holy day in Flemish cycling – because of his remarkable performances in what is his first taste of these races. He is a former U23 Paris-Roubaix champion but his pro career has largely been focused on stage races and the hilly Classics. It was decided the cobbles should be added to his programme this year and he has hit the ground running.
The Luxembourg national champion was 16th at Omloop Het Niuewsblad, where his teammate Zdenek Stybar won, and he claimed victory the following day at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne with a long solo attack. At E3 BinckBank last Friday he placed fifth but his long-range solo attack effectively handed victory on a plate to Stybar. Jungels didn’t ride Gent-Wevelgem but made the decisive selection at Dwars Door Vlaanderen on Wednesday and finished third.
“It’s quite a surprise to be up there straight away. I had a very good winter, nice preparation in Colombia with a race there, then coming here and performing well. It was a surprise but a welcome surprise, and I’m more than happy to get used to it," Jungels said.
“I must say I enjoy it a lot. It’s always pretty easy to enjoy it when you’re successful. The spirit in the team is always good, it’s a winning team, and you’re just attracted to that system. Of course, I’m enjoying doing these races for the first time, also learning from race to race.”
They say you learn best through your mistakes – especially in races where experience is said to count for so much – but Jungels hardly seems to have put a foot wrong so far this spring.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is how early you have to be in a good position. At Omloop, even before the Wolvenberg they were already fighting. You see it’s not possible to move up in the last five kilometres before a climb, like it is in any other race,” he said.
“Compared to pure Flemish Classics riders, maybe my climbing ability is a slight advantage. In the end, I’m actually always comfortable when the road goes uphill here, even though the flat cobbles sections are nothing I’m afraid of either. In the last few races I was always able to be up there, either when the good break went or the peloton split. I’m actually happy with what I’ve learned so far, and there’s still a lot to come.”
While Boonen sees Jungels as the favourite for Flanders, there’s always the question of leadership in the Deceuninck-QuickStep set-up, who invariably turn up to these races with a wealth of cards to play.
The team leadership question
After victory at Omloop and E3, many see Stybar – who, unlike Jungels, has waited quietly in the wings at Deceuninck-QuickStep before seizing his chances this spring – as an equal, if not bigger, favourite. Then there’s the small matter of 2017 Tour of Flanders winner Philippe Gilbert and Belgian champion Yves Lampaert.
“We’ve never had a problem with that. At E3 I tried my chance, and when I saw I no longer had a chance to win, I did a job for my teammate,” said Jungels.
“Everyone in this team has their own chance – it’s up to us whether we take it or not. Everyone knows it’s almost certain that there’ll be one or two who will be stronger than the others, so we have to communicate, be honest, and I think that’s something that has always worked in this team.”
As evidenced contrastingly in the past two editions of E3, when one Deceuninck-QuickStep rider goes up the road, the others behind are caught in limbo in the group behind, either receiving an armchair ride to the finale, or being marooned as the race slips away. Jungels hinted that his role might again be that of early aggressor.
“Monuments are always special races, and always different to the rest. Maybe the distance could be something that favours me even more. Everyone is maybe more attentive, and that maybe gives me a little chance to open the race earlier than the others, above all with the team we have,” he said.
“I’m not thinking too much about victory – I’m just going to try and do my own race, and in the final 50km a lot can happen.”
Jungels admitted he might feel a few butterflies when he arrives in Antwerp on Sunday morning, but for now he seems remarkably calm about it all.
“The confidence in myself is high, the confidence in me from the team is high, too,” he said. “I hope I can put it all together and unleash it on Sunday.”