Sometimes the game just doesn't break your way. On 72 different occasions last year, a Quick-Step Floors rider mounted the podium as a race winner, but somehow the honour evaded Zdenek Stybar.
A clutch of third-place finishes at the tail end of the season were the closest he came to a winner's bouquet, though the Czech's most notable body of work came in two very different supporting roles in April and May, when he helped to tee up Niki Terpstra at the cobbles and then guide Elia Viviani at the Giro d'Italia.
"I really had a lot of pleasure in the wins of my teammates, and I helped a lot of them to win their races, like at the Giro and the Classics," Stybar told Cyclingnews in Portimão ahead of the opening stage of the Volta ao Algarve. "Of course, for me, it was a bit of a pity that I didn't win any race myself, but I was up there in the finals in the one-day races and others. I think it was quite a good season last year, just without the win."
The statistics bear out Stybar's impressions. Past Classics campaigns have had more obvious highlights – he won Strade Bianche in 2015 and placed second at Paris-Roubaix that year and again in 2017 – but Stybar's 2018 spring was the most consistent of his career to date, as he placed in the top 10 at the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Strade Bianche.
At times last spring, Quick-Step's dominance was such the onus seemed to be on their riders to get up the road early and avoid being hemmed in by team duties. It wasn't quite as straightforward as that, of course, but Stybar always seemed to be half a beat too early or too late when it came to going on the offensive.
Such are the vagaries of riding for a team replete with potential winners on the cobbles, and Stybar does not believe that the departure of Niki Terpstra to Direct Energie will alter the lie of the land unduly at Deceuninck-QuickStep. Philippe Gilbert and Yves Lampaert remain in situ, while 2018 Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Bob Jungels joins the cobbles unit this year as something of a substitute for Terpstra.
"I don't really think it will change a lot because I always had kind of freedom in the spring Classics," Stybar said. "Although I never really took advantage of it, because I was always just away in front of the good breakaway. Either I missed the move or else the breakaway went just after my attack, or something like that. I was never really lucky at the right moment, let's say."
Van der Poel and Van Aert
Aside from Quick-Step's supremacy, the most compelling story of the 2018 Classics campaign was arguably the assured debut of three-time cyclo-cross world champion Wout van Aert, who showed no inhibitions en route to third at Strade Bianche and 9th at the Tour of Flanders.
Van Aert will be back will grander ambitions in the colours of Jumbo-Visma this spring, while Mathieu van der Poel, the man who recently divested him of the rainbow jersey, will also take his bow in the Classics in the coming weeks.
Few are better placed than Stybar to assess their prospects on the cobbles this spring. After all, he made the same transition on signing with Quick-Step in 2012, and continued code-switching to good effect for several years afterwards, landing his third cyclo-cross world title in 2014.
"What Wout did last year was really excellent. I thought he'd be there in one of the races, but honestly, I didn't really expect he'd be there in every one of them. So from Mathieu, I expect just the same. If you see how he was riding in cyclo-cross, he has just such a big engine. I'm sure he can do the distance and be there on the right moment. He's also a really good bike handler, so he will be there, I think. The cobbled Classics are made for him."
Stybar made a fleeting return to the cyclo-cross circuit with a quartet of appearances over the Christmas period, but he stressed that he took to the fields purely as part of his preparation for the road season.
"I really took it as a preparation for the spring classics because I think it's something that can push me a little harder. Cyclo-cross is just going flat-out for one hour, and that's something I needed this winter," said Stybar, who added that his quota of cyclo-cross races is unlikely to increase in the coming years, regardless of how well Van der Poel and Van Aert manage to combine the discipline with their nascent road careers.
"For me, I don't think it's possible to really make a full season and then a full cyclo-cross season. You'd have to make an easy summer to prepare for the cyclo-cross and then go on and do the spring classics before having a break. At this team, I don't think that is really possible."
Beneath azure skies and pale sunlight in Portugal this week, Stybar's thoughts are fixed firmly on spring. The Volta ao Algarve is, once again, the opening race of his season, and the road to the Ronde and Roubaix is a familiar one, by way of Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico. The formula wasn't quite a winning one a year ago, but that was no cause to discard it.
"Last year, I was really consistent from the beginning of the season," Stybar reasoned, "so I didn't think there was any reason to change something."
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