They say it takes time to bank the experience necessary to be competitive in the cobbled Classics, but Bob Jungels is making a mockery of that notion. After winning Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne at the start of the month, the Luxembourger, riding his debut cobbles campaign, produced another remarkable performance with a long-range solo at E3-BinckBank Classic that effectively teed his teammate Zdenek Stybar up for victory.
Jungels, who won Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year but looks equally comfortable on the punchier climbs and cobbles of the Flemish Ardennes, attacked with 60 kilometres remaining on Friday. Thirty kilometres later, after catching, dragging and dropping the remnants of the breakaway, he was alone, with the race in pieces behind him.
It was a nail-biter, as Jungels, arms folded over his bars in full Cancellara mode, tried to hold onto his advantage over a select group of eight that contained Stybar, with another small group just behind them. In the end, he was caught with seven kilometres remaining, but still found the strength to soften up the final group of five and then lead out the sprint for Stybar.
"Of course, I was always believing in victory, otherwise I wouldn’t have killed myself that much," Jungels told reporters in Harelbeke.
"I had the same kind of feeling at Kuurne, but that was out of a breakaway, and I think the guys chasing were a bit more tired than the guys today. It’s no shame to be caught by that select group of riders."
Besides, it was far from an all-or-nothing play from the Luxembourg champion. His long-range attack was at the heart of yet another pitch-perfect deployment of resources from the all-conquering Deceuninck-QuickStep team.
It allowed Stybar to avoid taking turns in the chase group, which ultimately meant he was fresher in the home straight and able to pick off the likes of Greg Van Avmaet and Wout Van Aert in the sprint.
"I really gave it everything to make the others suffers as much as possible," Jungels said.
"I knew Styby was there, and wasn't working, and when they came back I just played his teammate and in the end he played it well. Of course, I said straight away on the radio, 'I will pull, Styby should stay behind'. He still insisted on doing some pulls. He was pretty clearly the strongest after the others had been chasing for so long, so the plan worked out."
While he believed he might cling on for a famous solo victory, Jungels brushed aside suggestions from a Belgian reporter that he should be disappointed with the outcome.
"Why? It is an individual sport but also a team sport. We came here with four leaders, and one of us had to make it happen. I was the first one to go, and yeah, it decided the race and in the end we won. Tonight we will have a glass of champagne and nobody will care who won," he said.
"Styby, first of all, is a very good friend of mine, outside of cycling. We've been close for a few years. For that reason, I'm super happy for him. For me it was a pleasure to ride for him and give my shot at victory for him."
Favourite for Flanders? 'Anything can happen'
On an individual level, Jungels' performance put it beyond all doubt that the decision to head to the cobbled Classics was a wise one. As well as being a winner of the hardest of the Ardennes Classics, he is also a Grand Tour contender, twice finishing in the top 10 of the Giro d'Italia. Jungels, it seems, can do it all, but arguably has looked as good as ever in northern Belgium.
"It's my kind of racing, to dare, and try," he said, revealing he hadn't done a recon and knew very little of the parcours in front of him.
"It's kind of the same as the Ardennes – coming to these races we always have a favourite role as a team, and it's not always easy to live up to that. It also comes with some pressure, of course, but I’m happy I could deliver here, especially at E3, which is one of the harder ones."
It's hard to talk about E3 without talking about the big one, the Tour of Flanders, given the similarity in the parcours and the fact it's often referred to as a 'mini Ronde'. Stybar's victory earns him de facto favourite status for next Sunday but Jungels will now be seen as a serious contender.
"I don't know, I don't think so. It will be first time I do that race," he countered. "But yeah, anything can happen in these races. I'm just glad to be in this amazing group of riders."