Jasper Stuyven (Trek Factory Racing) entered the WorldTour ranks last year bearing the reputation of a Classics star in the making, and he showcased many of the traits necessary for success in April en route to his first professional victory on stage 8 of the Vuelta a España.
Still only 23 years of age, Stuyven picked himself up from a crash, thrashed out an on-the-hoof working alliance with a rival team and then unleashed a powerful finishing sprint to claim the win: the blend of resolve and cunning associated with wins in Meerbeke in years past, rather than in Murcia.
"I don’t know how or who or what but I saw bikes flying in the air, and I realised immediately that I wasn’t going to avoid this: sometimes you just know," Stuyven said of his involvement in the mass crash that struck the peloton with 50 kilometres to race.
"I hit someone and stumbled over my bike, and I landed pretty badly on my wrists. They still hurt quite a lot now but I just jumped on the bike, because after a crash you’re full of adrenaline and you chase back. Then the pain starts to come."
Dan Martin, Tejay van Garderen, Kris Boeckmans and Nacer Bouhanni were all forced to abandon the race due to their injuries. For his part, Stuyven knew he was able to continue in the race, but he still didn’t know if he would be able to contest the win as he faced into two ascents of Alto de la Cresta del Gallo in quick succession in the finale.
His team later confirmed that Stuyven had suffered a fractured scaphoid bone in his hand in the crash.
"The first time on the climb I suffered with the pain in my wrists, but then the second time I said ‘Ignore it, and just stay in there,’" Stuyven said. "I was little bit scared about doing a sprint because I felt pain when I pulled on the bars. But at the end I didn’t even feel the pain."
After surviving the selection on the Cresta del Gallo, Stuyven had to contend with a fragmented peloton on the fast, flat run-in to Murcia, as seven riders slipped up the road after the final descent. A possible ally of circumstance was lost when Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) was brought down by an organisation motorbike, but Stuyven had already entered into negotiations with his fellow Belgian Tosh Van Der Sande (Lotto Soudal).
"I saw Tosh van der Sande from Lotto and I knew he had guys in the group, so I said ‘Why don’t you pull?’ I put Haimar Zubeldia, and Riccardo Zoidl at the front too, and they did a really good job and rode a regular tempo," he explained.
Stuyven was able to look after himself in the finishing straight. Forced wide by Peio Bilbao (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), he still had enough in reserve to take the win ahead of the Spaniard, while Kévin Reza (FDJ) took third. "Once I launched my sprint, I felt immediately that I was able to take the victory," he said a victory that puts a different complexion on Trek’s Vuelta in the wake of Fabian Cancellara’s abandon due to illness of Monday.
The win was Stuyven’s first in the professional ranks, though he reminded the press room that some of his best performances to date at this level had come in last year’s Vuelta. He was in the picture at least in several sprints twelve months ago, taking three fourth places. "I did really good here last year, but of course not a lot of people remember it," he smiled. "It was good for me to finish in the top 10 then, and I came here this year to try to take a victory."
Stuyven’s Vuelta win is an important calling card as he bids for a berth in the Belgian team for the World Championships in Richmond, on a parcours suited to so many of the nation’s one-day specialists – "It won’t be easy but I’ve shown I’m in growing condition and I think I deserve my spot there," he said – and it also compensates in part for a low-key Classics campaign.
"I felt really strong before the Classics this year and I was ready to go for them, but I had a bad crash in Strade Bianche and I needed surgery twice on my elbow. It was a pity for my Classics, because I wasn’t able to get in the perfect shape there."
Winner of the junior Paris-Roubaix in 2010 and second in the under-23 version a year later, the headlines wrote themselves when he was officially unveiled as a Trek Factory Racing rider at the team’s presentation in Roubaix in January 2014. As he stood alongside Fabian Cancellara on stage at the Vélodrome Jean Stablinski, it was clear that Stuyven was a firm part of Trek’s plan of succession.
"To be in the top level at the classics, you need to be older, stronger and experienced, so I’m happy to be in the team with Fabian," Stuyven said. "Next year, in probably his last season, I’ll be able to ride with him again and learn from him. Then after that, I’ll be able to get a nice result for myself."