Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep) became the first rider from the famous Belgian WorldTour team to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad since Nick Nuyens won the race in 2005 when it was known as Omloop Het Volk.
The Czech rider attacked the final selection of Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) and Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida) in the final kilometres to take his second victory in as many weeks, following a stage victory in Volta ao Algarve.
The two wins come off the back of three years with only a single victory - at the Czech national road race championships in 2017. A close second place finish at Paris-Roubaix in the same season was perhaps the summation of the past few years for Stybar, visible in big race finales, loyal teammate but ultimately just off of the pace, until today.
"I think it's quite difficult to explain, I don't have an explanation for it," Stybar said in the race winner's press conference. "I just will say that I kept on believing in the last years that I can come back into the winning move and that I can win some nice races.
"Since my big victories at Strade Bianche and the stage at the Tour de France, I had to wait a really long time but since last year I was very focused and was just working in training on a good line and being very precise. I felt that already last year I was in good shape but I could never win, I was always there and I could help my teammates often.
"Last week I think it was a nice victory, which gave me a lot of confidence and it also helped me today because the team believed in me. Since the Muur, Tom [Steels] was telling me in the radio I still had three guys behind but we're going for you. Believe in your sprint and you can finish it off."
Deceuninck-QuickStep's (then as Quick-Step Floors) 2018 Classics season was nothing short of dominant. Le Samyn, Dwars door West-Vlaanderen Johan Museeuw Classics, Nokere Koerse, Handzame Classic, De Panne, E3 Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Tour of Flanders and Scheldeprijs were all won by the Belgian team through six different riders.
A year on and the team is already back to winning ways as the season kicks off in Northern Europe, despite losing the likes of Fernando Gaviria and Niki Terpstra in the off-season.
"If one of my teammates has a chance to win, I'll still go 100 percent for him. Last week in Algarve, I was in a winning situation and I think Enric Mas helped me to win that stage," Stybar continued. "Today I had three guys behind me who were supporting me and that is the spirit in our team. One day you go for someone else and another, they go for you so that's excellent in our team."
The winning move
It was again a Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate that played a vital role in Stybar's victory. With 50 kilometres remaining Philippe Gilbert surged away from the peloton after earlier breaks were brought back, drawing the likes of Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Daniel Oss (Bora-hansgrohe) and Van Avermaet. Following the attack, fractures began forming at the front of the race and Stybar found himself in what would be the final selection.
"[At 60 kilometres remaining] I just covered the breakaway because there was nobody else there from our team, so I just jumped in because you know on these races it's better to be in the big group being chased than when you have to chase."
The chase group came within 15 seconds of the lead group containing Stybar as the race crested the Muur but the quintet was too strong and distanced the group in the final 15 kilometres. After nearly 200 kilometres of racing, it came down to as much of a psychological test as who has the strongest legs.
"It was actually only once [that a big attack happened]. I saw that Tim [Wellens] wasn't taking turns anymore so I was expecting him to go. I thought he'd maybe go one kilometre earlier because it was slightly uphill so that will be the moment but he didn't go.
"I was just waiting for Wellens to go and he went on the other side of the road when there was a central reservation. I think someone else tried it last year as well and it didn't work out, I was just hoping that Greg [Van Avermaet] would cover the attack from him and also Lutsenko directly reacted.
"At that moment, I knew it was the right time to go and it was a good moment. Before I was just waiting for the sprint, I was quite confident with all the corners and the slightly uphill finish but on this opportunity, I didn't have to think, one second and I just went all out.
"230 metres to go with the last corner on the left. It was only there I believed I had won."
Stybar denied that any big changes in training or preparation in the off-season have contributed to the two victories after such a long spell without a victory. The three-time cyclo-cross world champion did, however, make some time for 'cross races over the Christmas period and suggested that the festive racing may have kept him more disciplined than in recent years.
"Maybe also with the cyclo-cross races, it gave me some fun during the winter, it broke up the winter a little bit. Also, you know in between Christmas and new year it's always the grey week where you're not really keeping an eye on your diet and your rest but because I was racing it was something I still had to and maybe it's given me that extra boost and it fitted really well with my training.
"I just think everything has gone really well until now and I'm really happy for that."
Whether Stybar's form can continue for another month into April remains to be seen. Two second places at Paris-Roubaix over the years have put the Czech rider within touching distance of a Monument but the Tour of Flanders remains even more elusive.
"I don't know, you never know. [The Tour of Flanders] is a race that one hundred other guys want to win, I was already in the big finals several times and never could even make the podium. I will keep on working, keep on dreaming, keep on believing and I hope that it will happen."
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