Few onlookers would have picked out an Ineos Grenadiers neo-pro and teenage American as a likely winner of Brabantse Pijl when he and the rest of the peloton left Leuven to start the race on Wednesday afternoon.
Four hours later, though, Magnus Sheffield, 19 years old until next Tuesday, delivered a stunning solo win to claim the biggest triumph yet of his nascent pro career. Sheffield jumped away with 3.8km to go in the race as Ineos worked the numbers game – with three riders in the seven-man lead group – to perfection.
Sheffield had the strength and the tactical advantage in the final of the hilly-packed race, but he also had a secret weapon, he revealed in the post-race press conference – a memory for turns, roads, and racing lines taken from his time spent alpine skiing.
"I have a particularly good memory of remembering particular turns and also lines," Sheffield said. "We didn't get to recon the course earlier. But obviously, we did multiple circuits.
"I would say I have a very good memory especially when I go and train. So, it comes in handy, especially for these really technical Classics and also the cobbled races because it's so important to know every inch of the road. So, yeah, I'd say that's one of my specialities."
Sheffield also said that racing the cobbles comes naturally to him, too, even if he said he wasn't fully sure why. The American seems to have arrived as a fully-formed Classics racer, and this season is already set to complete the full complement of cobbled Classics with Paris-Roubaix at the weekend.
He didn't expect to score this kind of result at Brabantse Pijl, which featured two cobbled climbs on the closing circuit in the shape of the Hertstraat and Moskesstraat.
"Honestly no," he answered when questioned about his expectations of winning the race. "But this season has just been full of surprises, and I think it's really important not to doubt yourself and I have the confidence.
"Even though you may not feel so great you have to remember that everyone feels the same. Everyone's hurting in these types of races, and it's really just about the mental fortitude that you have, and you have to push until you cross the finish line like today."
Sheffield's winning move came after having first made that elite selection at the head of the race after teammate and fellow neo-pro Ben Turner forced the decisive splits at 51km to go. The American had also led the way on the final climb of the Moskesstraat 10km from the line, pushing on at the front and putting seasoned pro Warren Barguil (Arkéa-Samsic) into trouble at the rear.
Just over 6km later, he was off again, this time for good, jumping off the front of the group after following an acceleration from Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal). Teammates Turner and Tom Pidcock played spoilers behind, and the rest was history.
"I just followed a move with Wellens," Sheffield said. "When he swung off, I found myself alone. I knew I wanted to press on and force the other guys to chase, so I could let my teammates sit on, but then everybody was just kind of looking at each other because it was in the final kilometres. I just put it in my biggest gear and tried to go full gas to the finish.
"Obviously it's not easy in those final kilometres but it's really just about leaving it all out there so that you don't have any doubts afterwards."
As Pidcock had said after Amstel Gold Race, won by Ineos' Michał Kwiatkowski, and as he and Turner said after Brabantse Pijl, Sheffield also explained that having numbers in the final was always the plan. It was a plan that worked perfectly, once again.
"It was a really strong group, but obviously we were the only team that had numbers," he said. "So, I think we use that to our strength and that was also the plan before the race, to use that to our advantage.
"You've seen that in the previous races that we've dominated with numbers in the front. So I think that's definitely one of our skills and something that we've been able to take advantage of this season."
Sheffield, who hails from upstate New York – a place with terrain and riding he noted is similar to the hills of Flanders and the Ardennes – said that he and the rest of the Ineos' crop of young guns have something of a rivalry among themselves, something that helps them push one another.
In addition to himself, Pidcock and Turner, the likes of Ben Tulett, Ethan Hayter, Carlos Rodríguez, and Luke Plapp have all either won races or put in impressive rides this season, with the common denominator among them being that they're all 23 or younger.
"We get on with each other on and off the bike. We're all really good friends," Sheffield said. "OK, yeah, there's always going to be a bit of rivalry, but it's more in a way that's supportive, to push each other.
"We're all equal on the team. I'd say. Even though Tom is a leader, we still see each other as equals and we're good friends. So, I think that's a big difference compared to a lot of other teams. There's not a big 'real' rivalry.
"It's really about putting me in as many races as possible and also a broad spectrum of race," he added, talking about Ineos' plan for their crop of promising youngsters.
"It's just about allowing me to get the support and knowledge from the older riders, fostering that and passing on that information from the experienced guys. And it's about creating this young group where we can push each other in training and racing.
"We're all under 23 and so I think it's the style of racing that's changed quite a bit recently. But yeah, I think any of us were capable of winning today, it just happened to be me."
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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