It was perhaps a measure of Zdenek Stybar's current position in the firmament of galacticos at Deceuninck-QuickStep that he was excused duty at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday with an eye to the weekend's main event, the Tour of Flanders.
Tom Boonen once shed light on the hierarchy within Patrick Lefevere's star system by explaining how, following the retirement of Johan Museeuw in 2004, he was promoted from being "a midweek guy" – a winner of races like Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke – to a leader trusted with the onerous task of carrying off victory in a Monument.
Stybar, already winner of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 BinckBank Classic, has been the most successful of Deceuninck-QuickStep's quartet of Ronde leaders so far this season, but he insists that his status was no different to a year ago. He will set off from Antwerp on an equal footing with Bob Jungels, Philippe Gilbert and Yves Lampaert.
"It's the same, you know. Even in the time that Tom Boonen was on the team, we never really raced only for Tom Boonen," Stybar told reporters on Friday.
"We'll start with four guys as leaders and that will never change. The team will not ride only for me. We are four guys who can win the race from our team and that’s our big advantage."
Twelve months ago, Stybar played a key supporting role as Niki Terpstra, now of Direct Energie, carried off the Ronde, but amid the avalanche of victories enjoyed by QuickStep last year – some 73 in total – the Czech’s season never quite snowballed. Although he enjoyed the most consistent Spring of his career, with top 10 finishes in Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Strade Bianche, his form was not rewarded with a victory.
A willing attacker through the Classics period, Stybar’s forays off the front created opportunities aplenty for his teammates, but a similar chance never quite dropped his way. This year, however, doors that previously seemed tightly locked are now opening with a nudge, starting with victory on the final stage of the Volta ao Algarve in February.
"I won in Algarve and that made a big difference for me," Stybar confirmed.
"I had been in the breakaway three years in a row in the last stage and never made it all the way to the finish, but this year I did. That meant I went with big motivation and morale to Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and I was able to win that race. Then I just got more confident than other years, and I think that makes a difference."
The 33-year-old also made a brief foray back onto the cyclo-cross circuit at the turn of the year, where the benefits were perhaps as much psychological as physical. The winter was shortened, and he could race with abandon in the muddied fields, with no thought to the final result.
"Doing the cyclo-cross races was a really nice period, with all the spectators," Stybar said. "I really enjoyed it, it broke down the winter a little bit for me."
Omloop and the Ronde
Stybar was speaking to reporters at the Deceuninck headquarters in Hooglede, where his team held its pre-Tour of Flanders media event on Friday. Before proceedings began, CEO Francis Van Eeckhout quipped that he didn’t care how people pronounced his company’s name so long as they bought his products. Patrick Lefevere, one imagines, feels something similar about his four leaders for the Ronde, but Stybar laughed off the idea that the onus was on them to win.
"I don't think that we have much pressure," Stybar said. "Maybe for the outside world, it looks like that, but we don’t have Patrick Lefevere standing there on the bus before the race saying, 'Guys, now you have to win.' I never hear this.
"Of course, everybody wants to win but we've won really nice races already this year which puts us in a comfortable position ahead of this race. If we don't win, we’ll just have to say somebody was stronger there, or we did a mistake and we have to learn from it. That can happen, it’s sport."
Stybar's run of success in the lead-up to the Ronde mirrors that of eventual winner Niki Terpstra a year ago, though the Dutchman's direct replacement this year, Bob Jungels, has also displayed remarkable form in recent weeks. Jungels, too, has a penchant for attacking from distance, and, like last year, Stybar could find himself hemmed in by circumstance in the finale.
"It's definitely not about who is the first to get away because that would be too simple," Stybar said of the team's tactical approach. "But it doesn't matter who wins, the strength of our team is that we like to work for each other and that there is no jealousy."
Winner of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in February, Jungels is vying to become the first debutant to win the Tour of Flanders since Diego Zandegù in 1967. Stybar, meanwhile, is looking to be the first rider in history to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders in the same season.
"Would it be the first one? Ah, I didn’t know this. I thought it happened already," said Stybar, who smiled when asked if he was concerned that he had hit form too soon to win on Opening Weekend. "No, because I think there is definitely a rider who won both Omloop and Paris-Roubaix."