The worst-case scenario for the huge amount of Belgian fans present at the Hoogerheide 2014 UCI cyclo-cross world championships became reality on Sunday afternoon as Czech rider Zdenek Stybar took home the victory in the elite men's race.
The 2010 and 2011 'cross world champion dispatched pre-race favorite Sven Nys on the final lap to win the rainbow jersey, but it is unclear as to how cyclo-cross will factor into his future, since his focus has turned mainly to the road and his Omega Pharma-QuickStep team.
Stybar couldn't say how often he would display his new jersey, or if he would defend his cyclo-cross world title at the 2015 World Championships in his home country, in Tabor.
"Tabor is a different circuit. I know how much energy it'll cost me to be in perfect shape and how many stairs I have to run to get the title. Tabor is really hard. You have to invest a lot of time for that. My victory today is the best publicity for Czech cyclo-cross, Czech cycling, Czech sport that I could do. That was also a reason why I started here."
Stybar allayed the fears of the fans that not having the rainbow jersey in the races would hurt the sport.
"The supporters and crowd and television viewers will never change. It's just the number one sport in Belgium sport. It doesn't matter if the world champion is there or not. They will still love the sport ... There's a really big chance I'll race cyclo-cross in 2014 but it's too far away to tell how much."
Now a Grand Tour stage winner (in the Vuelta a España), and a podium contender in Paris-Roubaix, Stybar now limits his 'cross to a few races between Christmas and Worlds, and only secured permission from Omega Pharma-Quickstep team manager Patrick Lefevre to race the world championships as long as his build-up to the road season wasn't impacted.
"Actually Patrick is a big supporter of cyclo-cross so it wasn't difficult," Stybar said at the post-race press conference. "It was a discussion with whole the team. I said that I want to start but only to get some publicity for the team and get fifteenth. In the end I was relaxed, maybe too relaxed. Not from team, sponsors, anybody there was pressure to do it. In the end it was my decision."
"During those Christmas weeks I improved in every race. I entered it with only basic long training rides in my legs. In my last cross in Baal I had a very good day, but to beat Sven Nys there is nearly impossible. Then I figured that I might do worlds. Everybody expected me to be better because I trained one month since Baal but I trained for my road season except for this race this week. It was all power training. Explosive stuff which also helps for the road season but is similarly useful for cyclo-cross. I want to improve my strengths to turn them into an advantage over the other road riders. I only do six and a half hour rides, not three hours fast behind scooter, so no specifics for this race."
Both Stybar and Nys did their final preparation for the race in Mallorca, but Stybar had his doubts about racing up until the last minute, doubting his ability to fight out of a poor starting position determined by UCI points. "Three days ago I thought not to start, because it would be ridiculous. Also because I have to start behind. After the first recon that changed. Why not accept the challenge? I was a bit more focussed on it. I was really not nervous compared to previous years. Yesterday after the recon I thought it was too difficult. Luckily there was 'weather for sport' which said it would be changing and get sunny without rain, my favourite weather."
Stybar didn't bother to conserve his energy and by the end of the first lap he popped up out of the mud riding at the front and setting a blistering pace on the road section. "Moving to the front was a big effort. I almost crashd too. Once in front I didn't have to wait for anybody and went for it, even if it would be over for me after three laps."
What followed was a great duel with the defending champion Nys, with both riders exchanging the accelerations which were always well fenced by the other rider. Stybar explained that he enjoyed the pre-race TV-show on Sporza as he gained crucial information. "I was enjoying Sporza because they showed that Sven would start with 33 Rhinos. I figured I would ride with Grifos. It was also a big risk for me. On technical parts he was better because of the rougher profile. When I changed for Rhinos I figured I could take more risks, but of course then I crashed."
That crash during the penultimate lap cost him a lot of energy but he managed to close the gap back down. A bit later, Nys once again created a gap that seemed decisive. "I thought it was over but when Nys crashed I was back on his wheel."
Nys landed in the mud at one of the switchbacks and that seemed to turn things around. Suddenly Stybar regained his belief, and he put Nys under pressure. On a tricky uphill section Stybar quickly opted to run with Nys on his bike behind him. "It was a risk to ride and I ran at ease. When I looked back, there was a gap so I upped the pace and went full gas." The reason of Nys' setback was that he had to hop off his bike due to the slow pace from Stybar. "Then he made another mistake in the mud where I always lost ground on him. I knew I had to lead there in the final lap."
Stybar made no mistakes and grabbed his third world title, but was awarded with a shower of beer by the unhappy Belgian fans. "True. In the last lap I got a few beers over my head. I still prefer Pilsner Urquell," Stybar referred to his Czech beer. "On one side I really understand their reaction. Maybe it's due to the alcohol or due to the fact that a Belgian didn't win. It was always there, and it will always be there that some supporters act like that. Sven probably also got a few litres over him like that in the past, probably the most he ever had in his life. It's not difficult to find some guys like that in such a crowd. I can live with that."