Prior to 98th edition of the Tour of Flanders, Omega Pharma-QuickStep was seen as the team to beat. While the riders may have put up a fight, they ultimately ended the race empty handed. However for Zdenek Stybar the race was an important lesson.
The cyclo-cross world champion's best result in a road race monument is his sixth place at last year's Paris-Roubaix. Seventh at this year's Milan-San Remo was evidence of Stybar's improvement in the long and hard races and with four riders in the lead group of fourteen riders, another top-ten finish was on the cards. However Stybar was forced to play a minor role in Omega Pharma-Quick Step's team games and finished 18th, 1:25 behind Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing).
"We were the strongest team until the Oude Kwaremont. That doesn't buy us anything. Only winning matters. No mistakes were made but the others were better. We rode well all race long but couldn't make the difference," team manager Patrick Lefevere said after the race.
Team leader Tom Boonen was unable to go with Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) when the duo turned the screws on the Oude Kwaremont in what proved to be the winning move of the day. Stybar and teammate Niki Terpstra also missed the decisive attack. Cancellara and Vanmarcke went on to catch Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Stybar's teammate Stijn Vandenbergh and sprint for victory, while behind the other riders struggled to organise a serious chase.
"It's always a bit of a lottery and you never really know how it will develop as a race," Stybar explained to Cyclingnews after the race.
"Now I'm really tired but at the end, I was still pretty good on the Paterberg next to Niki [Terpsta] but on the flat part, Niki went and then Tom went so it was just jumping from group to group and I didn't ride behind my teammates."
Asked whether perhaps he or Terpstra should have anticipated the move by Cancellara, Stybar responded: "On the Kwaremont I couldn't go. I saw Cancellara going but he was maybe four of five places in front of me and I didn't know if I was in the wheel. If I could go, it would be difficult and I didn't think I could follow."
With Vandenbergh in the break ahead, Stybar stated that he was the right man to have got away although he suggested that it always a lottery on who can get away.
"At the moment, it was also pretty difficult [and] Stijn made the right decision to get away and then it's difficult to ride behind a teammate but we were always in a good position. Afterwards the group got bigger and bigger as some riders came back. Then on the Kwaremont, Cancellara and Vanmarcke, the two strongest guys, just rode away."
While Vandenbergh has enjoyed a good spring, he is far from the most accomplished sprinter in the squad but as Stybar explained the team had to back him.
"Stijn deserved to be there. He is very strong and has a good sprint. But it's difficult to react in that situation, with 30-40km to go. Everyone was jumping around, everyone was go on the attack and everyone was trying to go up the road. You don't know who'll be in the breakaway and how far you'll get so it's a lottery."
"Stijn has been very good all spring and he was in the right place at the right moment. OK he didn't finish it off but he was there and of course, it would be better to have someone who has a better sprint. But it is what it is."
While Stybar will ride Sunday's Paris-Roubaix as a favourite, the 28-year-old is increasingly becoming a protagonist in the monuments and perhaps he could have landed a podium place at the Tour of Flanders if he had made it into the break.
"I think I made another step forward," he said.
"I'm getting a little bit closer to the finale which is important for me and as I said, in some races you need to be lucky."