Zdenek Stybar tried to win a race in every which way in 2018, but for all his wholehearted endeavour, the top step of the podium somehow eluded him in a campaign that saw his teammates rack up some 73 victories in total.
On the final stage of the Volta ao Algarve on Sunday, the Czech was riding in a supporting role for Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Enric Mas and wound up helping himself to stage victory atop the Alto do Malhão. Cycling sometimes adheres to a curious old logic.
In each of the past two editions of the Volta ao Algave, Stybar had gone on the attack ahead of the final haul up the Malhão in search of stage honours. This time around, he marked Søren Kragh Andersen's attack with 20km to go on behalf of Mas and managed to stay clear to claim victory.
"It's traditionally a very tough stage. Every year it's the same, it's a really hard stage," Stybar said. "Last year and two years ago, I was in the breakaway, so this was the third year in a row. Two times they caught me up, but third time lucky and I could finally finish it off."
Stybar found himself in an enviable position when he tracked Andersen's move on the climb of Vermelhos. His teammate Tim Declercq was still up the road among the survivors of the day's early break, while Mas was poised in the yellow jersey group behind. Although Andersen made a couple of cursory nudges of his elbow, the Dane knew that Stybar had two cast-iron excuses not to contribute to the pace-making.
They were later joined by Steve Cummings (Dimension Data), and the trio would catch and then drop the early escapees as they barrelled towards the base of the Malhão, opening up a lead in excess of a minute over Pogacar et al. Andersen, now the virtual race leader, warmed further to his task and continued to power on the front, while Stybar held fire for the final ascent.
"When I saw there was a move, I thought, 'OK, now is the time to go,'" Stybar said. "We also had Tim Declercq here in really great shape, so I knew I had a guy who could help me out. In that moment, I didn't really have to pull. I had there one guy in front of me and Enric Mas behind, so it was a perfect situation for me. I was just waiting.
"I knew that on this parcours it's really hard to chase down a move, and then on the final climb it was all or nothing."
Andersen's tempo on the lower slopes of the Malhão was enough to see off Cummings, but he was unable to shake off Stybar on the steepest part of ascent. Stybar bided his time until the road levelled off somewhat in the final kilometre, before punching his way clear on the approach to the line to win by three seconds. "I'm really happy that I could finish it off, it's a big reward for me," said Stybar.
Stybar's consistency was a notable part of QuickStep's dominance in the cobbled Classics last year, but although he raced with the same freedom as Niki Terpstra, Philippe Gilbert and Yves Lampaert, opportunity never quite seemed to fall his way. With Opening Weekend next on the agenda, he will hope victory in Portugal marks a turning point.
"I'm really happy I could finish it off this time, and it makes a really big difference for the confidence," Stybar said. "It's a confirmation of winter. The shape is there and now I have to profit from that in the coming races."
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