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Stybar 'going into the unknown' at Opening Weekend

SCHOTEN BELGIUM OCTOBER 14 Zdenek Stybar of Czech Republic and Team Deceuninck QuickStep during the 108th Scheldeprijs 2020 a 1733km stage from Schoten to Schoten Scheldeprijs FlandersClassic SP20 on October 14 2020 in Schoten Belgium Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images
Zdenek Stybar (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Confidence and caution are usually viewed as opposites, but somehow in the countdown to this year's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Zdenek Stybar (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) is seemingly managing to combine both.

Stybar won his first Belgian Classic at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2019 thanks to a late solo move after the race exploded on the Molenberg in 2019, and quickly followed up with a victory in the E3 Harelbeke. It is only logical that the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has a special place in the 36-year-old's heart. If that memory is only one reason for the Czech racer's motivation to be high when he takes his place in the peloton Saturday morning in Gent, then his excellent winter's training is another.

Even so, as Stybar also points out to Cyclingnews, no matter how well you think are going, it's only when you are rattling across the cobbles and over the bergs of central Flanders that you gain surefire confirmation of those seemingly good pre-Opening Weekend sensations.

"You don't know how the other riders are going, what their shape is. We know our team will perform well, but everybody starts the year with different race programs, so this race is always about going into the unknown," Stybar tells Cyclingnews during the Ruta del Sol his last pre-Opening Weekend race.

"But I think everything is quite on track. I had a good winter, I could do all the training I needed to do. Now the Ruta has been a really tough race to start, particularly these last two stages, but I think it's a really good step up before the Spring Classics. It will be a real challenge but we definitely have a very strong team for those races."

One element that thankfully has been ironed out of the perennial Classics puzzle, Stybar says, is the cardiac arrhythmia that poleaxed his spring campaign midway through last year. After placing a promising fifth place in Gent-Wevelgem, his second half of the spring consisted of a cardiac ablation operation in early April. He had fears, too, that his career might be over.

"I've never been confronted with heart problems before. I didn't feel anything coming," he told Het Laatste Nieuws in an interview at the time. "It is the nightmare of every top athlete and riders have already succumbed to it in recent years. So, yes I was scared.

"The Tuesday after Gent-Wevelgem, the day before my operation, I went cycling with Mathieu van der Poel. On the way home, the thought, 'Shit, this might have been my last training ever'."

As it turned out, Stybar's concerns were misplaced and his second half of the season saw him shine on Belgian soil again when he rode strongly in the Vuelta in support of sprinter Fabio Jakobsen then placed a notable seventh in the World Championships.

Following the Opening Weekend, there will be a few changes to his usual program, with Strade Bianche, which he won in 2015, and Tirreno being ditched in favour of Paris-Nice. But the biggest goals in Belgium and France this Spring remain the same.

His off-season was actually more unusual, with no cyclo-cross for the multi-time former World Champion in that speciality, because, Stybar says, after the stress of his heart operation and a tough year, he wanted to spend more time with his family.

But in 2022 he was back on the road again and having clocked up more warm weather miles in the Ruta del Sol, he is confident he is heading in the right direction for Saturday and beyond, with form "as good, or a little better" than previous late Februarys.

"Sometimes what you feel is still different, many things can change and evolve, but I think it's all on track," he concludes, "and this [the Ruta del Sol] was new. But it was a good start."

While Stybar describes Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as a voyage into the unknown, his director at the Ruta del Sol, Brian Holm, tells Cyclingnews that QuickStep-AlphaVinyl make a virtue of being unpredictable at the big Classics regardless of when they happen.

"It's the best strategy. [QuickStep Classics directors] Wilfried Peeters and Tom Steels, they took something from the Mapei years" - a reference to the legendary Italo-Belgian team for which both Steels and Peeters rode, and which two decades ago formed a key foundation of the modern-day Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl team.

"Nobody ever had a clue what Mapei were going to do, they always started with quite a few different riders who could win. So when they were going to jump, nobody knew."

Warming to his point, Holm adds that "most teams have one or two leaders, but with QuickStep it's probably like three, four, sometimes five. And Zdenek is one of those, of course."

Who QuickStep are backing of their main men for the wins in Ninove and Kuurne, of course, will be a lot clearer by Sunday evening. And in terms of resolving those logical pre-season doubts about how your form compares with the opposition, too, as Stybar pithily puts it: "I think we'll be smarter about all that next week."

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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.