Last spring, Trek-Segafredo's Jasper Stuyven was up there in pretty much every spring Classic, without winning one or claiming a podium finish. It was expected that the 2016 Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne winner might kick on in 2019 and start truly challenging for titles, but he has endured a difficult campaign, with time running out to salvage something from it.
Stuyven finished 40th at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, 79th at Milan-San Remo, and 58th at the E3 BinckBank Classic. Part of a Trek-Segafredo team that misfired badly for those first few races, he and his teammates started to turn things around with John Degenkolb's second place at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend, and, after another solid display at Dwars door Vlaanderen, there's a sense of cautious optimism ahead of the Tour of Flanders.
Stuyven's preparation for the Classics campaign was disrupted by illness, but he still feels he's in the shape needed to be competitive at De Ronde on Sunday.
"I'm more in the underdog situation at the moment. I haven't felt like last year in the races. So it's not my year. But I think I'm strong enough to be there," Stuyven said at Trek-Segafredo's pre-Flanders press conference in Bruges, Belgium, on Thursday.
"I'm a little bit in between. I haven't had the super feeling I had last year in the races. I did feel as though I was getting better and better, but you always look at the results. If you had a good result before, that's always better to take into the next races, so that's why I'd say I'm in between. I'm just below the big favourites."
After a start to the Classics season in which the whole Trek-Segafredo team underperformed, and even apologised for their displays, Stuyven came to the fore at Gent-Wevelgem, along with his teammates Degenkolb, Mads Pedersen and Edward Theuns. All four were in the early breakaway that put Decueninck-QuickStep on the back foot, while Theuns went away in a five-man move with Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). Stuyven then attacked in the closing kilometres before Degenkolb took his second place in the group sprint.
At Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Stuyven finished 14th, in the main group behind the winning five-rider selection – another indication that he was improving ahead of Flanders, where he was seventh last year.
"The difference from last year is that I got sick. We'll see, but maybe it'll turn out for the best," Stuyven said.
"It's not that I really said up front that I'm going try to peak for one race specifically, because in the Classics you want to be as good as possible throughout those three weeks. You're hoping for that super day and that little bit of luck on the important days, and not the rest days in between."
Stuyven revealed that, after E3, he'd sat down with his sports psychologist, who he's been seeing for nearly three years now, for more than an hour. Degenkolb also revealed that the team as a whole had sat down together to thrash things out and try to work out where it was going wrong.
Whatever was said, it seems to have made a difference ahead of the most important fixture of the spring for a Belgian.
"It's been a long process," Stuyven said of his psychologist sessions. "On Saturday it helped for me to get all my thoughts out, and he gave me the right questions and helped me to see how wrong the thinking was in those moments at the races, and the mindset with which I should go to the next races.
"It doesn't necessarily help me with decision-making," he said. "It's more about my approach going into races – about dealing with situations, and how best to do that."