Professional cyclists are often said to be pedalling billboards, but Trek-Segafredo's Jasper Stuyven is not just representing Trek, or Segafredo, or any of the American WorldTour team's other sponsors. When he wins a big race, cheers also go up at a small chocolate shop in the village of Betekom, 35 kilometres north-east of Brussels.
The shop bears the Stuyven name, and anything Jasper does on the bike is reflected in the balance sheet.
It was a similar situation when, with the shop in its infancy, he came agonisingly close to a solo victory on the second stage of the 2016 Tour de France, winding up in the polka-dot jersey.
"It was quite hot in Belgium, and summer is not a good time for us anyway, but that week was really busy. We were selling out. Getting good results is obviously a good way to boost business."
The business, called Chocolade Atelier Stuyven, is a boutique selling high-quality chocolate. It's a joint venture between the 28-year-old Belgian rider and his uncle, Ivan Stuyven, a chocolatier with decades'-worth of experience.
"My uncle had a business before, for about 20 years, and it became quite big, but it was going more towards business-to-business selling. As the owner, he needed to take more responsibility of the books and the site management, but that's something he didn't like – he's a craftsman," Stuyven explains.
"So he sold the company and took a break for a few years, then he came to me with the idea of opening a new shop focused on customers, and starting it under our surname. He has been a fan of cycling and of me since I started, and I've been a fan of chocolate since forever, plus it gives you a kind of investment on the side, so I liked the idea."
The shop opened in late February 2016, barely a week before Stuyven soloed to victory at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.
He was already reasonably well-known, having been a former junior world champion and having won a stage at the Vuelta a España the previous summer, but this was his first Classics title and his first major victory on Belgian soil. It was as well-timed as the attack that took him to the line in the first place.
Four years on, and the shop continues to go from strength to strength, even if the COVID-19 pandemic has seen its doors shut temporarily.
"My uncle doesn't ask for a lot of commitment from me. He's the engine behind it and I put my face on it, but not just for show. I also invested in it, because I didn't want it to be fake – having my name on it and not really being part of it," Stuyven says.
"So I try to do the social side, try to connect the cycling world to our shop, all those small things."
While Stuyven leaves the chocolate-making to his uncle, he does have a hand in the product range. As the link between the cycling and chocolate worlds, he has been responsible for a number of themed pieces, from mini bidons to bikes and jerseys, including a special rainbow jersey batch to celebrate his teammate Mads Pedersen's world title. There has even been a chocolate sector of cobblestones.
The products are clearly high-end, but Stuyven doesn't want to pigeon-hole it as a 'luxury' brand.
"We don't put ourselves in the market as being the very best chocolate; we believe we offer the best value for money," he says.
"The milk chocolate one with the coffee-praline filling. A simple classic. It's the one I can eat all day."
"For example, if I tell people that airport chocolates, which are not bad chocolates, have those prices and those tastes... when I tell them our prices, they are always surprised how cheap it is. Having that reaction after they taste our chocolate is perfect – that's where we want to be and how we want to stand as a shop."
Escaping the bubble
The shop turns a decent profit but Stuyven's in it for more than mere financial gain; it gives him an outlet from what he and many others describe as the 'bubble' of professional cycling. He has stopped his studies in management as they were becoming a burden on his racing career, but the shop offers him just the right level of distraction.
His involvement varies according to his racing schedule. During the Classics, the most important part of his season, he takes a big step back, and his uncle will simply email him once a week to keep him in the loop. The off-season, however, is when they get together face-to-face on a much more frequent basis. At the moment, during the COVID-19 lockdown, they're on the phone to each other two or three times a week.
"I don't see myself being stuck in cycling, and I don't want to only be in that bubble. The shop is one of the things that allows me to go out of that bubble. I'm not going to say it's important but, personally, I like that I have something else to talk about than only cycling – that I know more about the world," Stuyven says.
"I'm not sure if this is the right way to say it, but there are some riders who have cycling, and it's all they have in their life. I don't want to say they're unhappy, but I would be. I'd be unhappy if if I couldn't disconnect from cycling once in a while."
Away from racing and the shop, time off for Stuyven is pretty straight forward: "Good food, good laughs, good wine – that's what I enjoy most."
As for enjoying good chocolate, it goes without saying that the products in his shop are hardly high up on nutrition guides for professional cyclists.
"Living in Monaco makes it easier," he says, "and, to be honest, when I do go to the shop, my uncle is pretty strict.
"For me, it's actually easier not to eat them, because if I have one, I'm lost."
The time when Stuyven can really let loose – besides the off-season – is the month-long break that follows the last of the cobbled Classics.
"My uncle is always there after Paris-Roubaix with some fresh Easter eggs for me," he says.
Given the way Stuyven started the 2020 Classics campaign, the coronavirus lockdown must have come with added frustration for him and his uncle. The Omloop was his first major one-day victory since the shop first opened, and he followed it up with fifth at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne the following day, raising hopes for the likes of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
We'll never know, but he and Ivan might have been selling chocolate faster than they could make it.
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