Zdenek Stybar transitioned from the cold, narrow roads of Belgium and northern France to the wide-open, sunny California climbs to restart his season after putting in his most successful cobbled Classics campaign to date, bringing home the top prize at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 BinckBank Classic, and playing a key role in Deceuninck-QuickStep's dominant spring assault.
Stybar was at the Amgen Tour of California last week, where his lack of personal result was tempered by the team's run of success that saw a group of up-and-coming riders win stages 2, 3 and 4 and bring home the final sprint jersey.
"This was my first race since the Classics, so it was a really good race to restart with many kilometres and a lot of climbing," Stybar told Cyclingnews before the start of the final stage in Santa Clarita. "So, for me, it was like the perfect start for the second half."
Although it has often been considered a sprinters' race since its inception in 2006, the Tour of California has transitioned into a tough GC test as it graduated to the WorldTour in 2017. In the 2019 race four of the seven stages reached over 200km, and the difficult routes included 20,725 metres of climbing over 1,251 kilometres of racing from Sacramento to Pasadena.
Kasper Asgreen started the fireworks for Deceuninck-QuickStep in California, winning the high-altitude climbing stage to South Lake Tahoe ahead of Tejay van Garderen (EF Education First) and Gianni Moscon (Team Ineos). Rémi Cavagna kept the Deceuninck-QuickStep fun rolling on stage 3, winning alone after a long solo ride to Morgan Hill – the headquarters of team sponsor Specialized.
It was Dutch sprinter Fabio Jakobsen's turn next, taking the stage 4 uphill bunch kick in Morro Bay ahead of Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates) and 2017 Morro Bay stage winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). Asgreen was momentarily in the race lead when van Garderen crashed outside the three-kilometre point, but the race jury awarded the American the same time as Jakobsen, preserving his yellow jersey.
It was a good run for the Belgian team, continuing on the earlier Classics success when more-established riders like Stybar, Philippe Gilbert, Bob Jungels and Julian Alaphilippe sailed through the spring.
In his ninth year with the team, Stybar started the ball rolling on 'opening weekend' with his first cobbled Classic win at the Omloop. He followed it at the end of the month with another win at the E3 BinckBank Classic. He was also fourth at Strade Bianche – a race he won in 2015, and which was won this year by teammate Alaphilippe. Stybar ended his 2019 Classics tilt with eighth in Paris-Roubaix while playing a key role in Gilbert's win. As runner-up in the 2017 race and ninth last year, Stybar was the perfect teammate to neutralise potential counters for Gilbert's successful late attack.
"It was great," Stybar told Cyclingnews of his Classics season. "Of course, I was waiting quite a long time to take any Classic, so finally it happened this year, and I really did enjoy it because of course I worked really hard, but I had a really good winter and the team was also on a very good level all the time. I was happy I could finish it off there."
Asked if it can be difficult to get his chances to win big races on a team like QuickStep, which has so many possible winners, Stybar said it wasn't a matter of riders waiting for their turn, as much as it was about seizing the opportunities that naturally present themselves when the team has multiple options.
"We ride for each other, of course, and that’s our biggest strength," he said. "That's why we can win – because we have always someone who can finish it off, who can ride away, and who's also fast in the sprints. So everyone gets his chance."
QuickStep's depth can't be underestimated. Earlier in the week at California, CCC Team manager Jim Ochowicz admitted to Cyclingnews that his team lacked the numbers to compete with deeper teams, limiting the effectiveness of 2016 Olympic champion and Classics specialist Greg Van Avermaet.
"That's the thing," Stybar said. "If someone [a teammate] was away, then we'd be happy just to neutralise it. Actually, we could just sit and slow down a little bit. So that's what helps us win."
After California, Stybar will return to Europe to prepare for the Critérium du Dauphiné. He said that although the second half of his year has not been 100 per cent mapped out, the Tour de France, where he won a stage in 2015, will probably not be on his calendar, and instead he's looking towards the Vuelta a España to soothe his Grand Tour ambitions.