While two-time cyclo-cross world champion Zdenek Stybar finished a fine sixth place in his Paris-Roubaix debut, the 27-year-old Czech will likely ponder what might have been on Sunday as a collision with a spectator at 14.5km remaining caused the Omega Pharma-QuickStep rider to lose contact with breakaway companions Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack Leopard) and Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco), who would vie for victory through to the Roubaix Velodrome.
Having made what would be the decisive selection at Paris-Roubaix, Omega Pharma-QuickStep teammates Zdenek Stybar and Stijn Vandenbergh found themselves with numbers in the race's endgame with just Cancellara and Vanmarcke for company, but collisions with spectators standing at the edge of the pave would prove fatal to both of their hopes with first Vandenbergh crashing heavily followed by Stybar's incident. Although Stybar remained upright, the elastic snapped between the Czech and Cancellara's rear wheel. Compounded with over-cooking a corner and nearly crashing during his initial push to regain contact with Vanmarcke and Cancellara, Stybar's podium hopes had evaporated.
"I was just following Cancellara," said Stybar. "I had really perfect legs and I was feeling very good. Then, there were three of us away and I thought 'I think I am one of the fastest,' so I was really focusing on what I could do in the final.
"[Teammate] Niki [Terpstra] was behind me so I didn't have to pull at all. I was really in a super situation. But after there was some photographer or something in the way and I hit him with my shifter and I nearly crashed. Before I could put my foot back in the pedal I just lost contact with the wheel of Cancellara. Once you have a gap of 5 to 10 seconds, it's impossible to close on this parcours, especially after 240 kilometers."
Stybar was philosophical about his Paris-Roubaix debut, where it seemed he'd at the very least be able to secure a podium result in the company of Cancellara and Vanmarcke.
"So on the one hand I am extremely disappointed, but on the other hand, for the first time here on the cobblestones and the Classics, I can be happy I was really close. I hope to come back and win this race."
Omega Pharma-QuickStep was without the services of defending and four-time Paris-Roubaix champion Tom Boonen, but the Belgian WorldTour squad rode a tactically perfect race through to the unfortunate incidents befalling both Stybar and Vandenbergh. Nonetheless, Terpstra claimed third place from a small group to salvage the team's day.
"I think as a team we did a really perfect job," Stybar continued. "From kilometer zero there was always someone in the breakaway. There was not once a group without our team. So, I think after the bad luck of Tom Boonen we proved we can still do really well as a team.
"All the group was very focused and motivated in the last days and weeks. We've just always had bad luck. For this race, once we hit the cobbles and saw all those crowds I realized it's very unique to be so lucky and so strong every single second. One moment you can lose everything, or you can win everything."