When Niki Terpstra, fresh off the back of victories at E3-Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders, made the surprising decision to swap QuickStep team for French second-division outfit Direct Energie, some speculated the door would open for riders like Zdenek Stybar.
Consigned to a watching brief for much of his QuickStep career, while the likes of Terpstra, Tom Boonen, and Philippe Gilbert went up the road to claim the big prizes, the former cyclo-cross champion has been nothing if not patient.
Now, though, the opportunities are coming and Stybar is grasping them with both hands, backing up his Omloop Het Nieuwsblad title at the start of this month with victory at E3 BinckBank on Friday.
That said, Stybar brushed aside suggestions he was somehow 'the new Terpstra'.
"Thank you for comparing me to Niki Terpstra," he said with a smile in his winner's press conference in Harelbeke, "but you can't really compare one rider to another.
"I don't really see it like this. We were racing really long time together. I have never thought I was filling up his place, because we are two different riders. I’m really happy to win this race, like he did, but still I don’t think we’re the same rider."
He also pointed out that, if Terpstra were still in the team, Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Bob Jungels, who was instrumental to the E3 victory, might not have even been on the start line.
"I think if Niki was in the team, then probably other guys are not in our team for those races, like maybe Kasper Asgreen or maybe Bob Jungels – maybe he would have just done his campaign in the Ardennes."
The change in the tide, Stybar argued, was instead down to experience. A three-time world cyclo-cross champion between 2010 and 2014, Stybar started riding on the road with QuickStep in 2011 and had his first taste of the Spring Classics in 2013. He won Strade Bianche in 2015 and has since finished on the podium at Paris-Roubaix and in the top 10 of the Tour of Flanders and Milan-San Remo.
This is the 33-year-old's seventh Classics campaign and he feels the accumulation has led him to where he is today.
"I think the biggest change for me is some extra experience. Every year I learn something new. I think that's what makes the difference," Stybar said.
"Now, I know where I really have to fight to be in the front, where I can be in fifth position, where I have to be in second position, and where I can be in 200th position. I think that's something that makes the difference in the finales.
"You have some years where you have really good shape but it just doesn't really work out, you don't get any result, or you're there but not sprinting for the win. This year, the condition is good and I'm there at the right moments."
The Jungels factor
Stybar and Jungels embraced enthusiastically beyond the finish line. The pair are good friends but the celebrations were a reflection of a joint effort. Jungels, on Stybar's advice, had attacked some 60km from the finish, dropping the breakaway to go it alone from 30km, and was only caught with 7km to go.
"With this team, it's really impressive. Almost everyone from our team can win these races. I think it's what makes the biggest difference for us," Stybar said.
"Today, I said to Bob on the new climb before Stationsberg, 'I think this is a really good climb for you, if you can just try to go, and the break is not so far away'. I don’t think it was a suicide mission for Bob. Everyone saw what he did in Kuurne. Maybe if two or three strong guys went with him, I think we don't see them again. But with Bob, it's someone like Julian Alaphilippe – just so strong they can do whatever they want."
Jungels' presence up the road allowed Stybar, who'd made it into an elite eight-rider selection, to sit in and avoid taking turns, leaving him freshest for the finale.
"I always love to hear when people make it sound like you’re sitting on the sofa. It’s really not like that. It's not like I was doing nothing, riding 100 watts while the others were full gas," he said.
"The guys pulling are also smart and tried to put me in the wind. For me it was also big effort to be there. I had to cover big attacks, like from Greg Van Avermaet on the Paterberg and Tiegemberg. From that moment I was just hoping Bob could go as far as he can. I was really happy for every kilometre he stayed in front, because he put me in a very comfortable situation."
The race still needed to be finished off, and though Stybar won it in a sprint he didn’t wait around for it. Sandwiched in between a pair of last-ditch softening-up attempts from Jungels was a stinging acceleration of his own in the dying kilometres.
"I knew the other guys had to work really hard to bridge the gap to Bob, so I thought, 'OK, it's a good moment for me to go'. When I went, I went really flat out. I was thinking it probably wouldn't work out, but I was just hoping it would really hurt them. I think it worked out," he said.
"In the sprint, Van Avermaet doesn't really make a lot of mistakes so I knew he was the right guy to follow. It was really a lot of pressure and I'm really happy I could finish it off."
Stybar will now be seen as the de facto favourite for the Tour of Flanders next Sunday, given how E3 is widely regarded as a dress rehearsal for De Ronde. Its parcours is so similar, covering so many of the same climbs, that it cannot help be the key indicator of form ahead of the big day.
The stats don't lie, either, with five of the past 12 E3 winners going on to do the double at Flanders, including, of course, one Niki Terpstra.
"I think I will really enjoy this pressure," Stybar said.
"Why not? It's not every year this happens. I made a big change from cyclo-cross to road to get in this situation and to reach these results, so now all I have to do is have fun and enjoy this situation and this condition."
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