Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider Zdenek Stybar scored his first victory of an embattled 2013 season in stage 3 of the Eneco Tour, taking out a small breakaway sprint victory over Maximiliano Richeze (Lampre-Merida) and Lars Boom (Belkin) with the peloton just seconds behind.
The win was a sign that the former cyclo-cross world champion is back on his best form after months out of competition due to a knee injury that necessitated surgery. It was his first win of the year, although his sixth place in Paris-Roubaix belied his potential: he was on track for a podium finish until a collision with a spectator brought him to a stop in one of the final cobbled sectors.
His knee injury hit soon after the Classics, and he underwent surgery in early May after he was unable to solve the problem. He had three weeks off the bike, but was not able to get back to normal training right away.
"I am really happy because it's the first victory since the Tour de Pologne last year," Stybar said. "After the surgery I had on my knee, I couldn't train as I normally would. I really hated the period after the surgery because I couldn't really follow a specific schedule.
"It wasn't easy, but in the last weeks, I was able to train really well in the Czech Republic, and after that good period at altitude camp. I felt I was improving quickly at that point."
Although Stybar's finishing speed earned him many victories during his cyclo-cross career, on the road he has relied mainly on his power over the cobbles, as in the Tour of Poland, or on breakaways to get results. Out-sprinting his late breakaway companions was something novel for the 27-year-old.
"I have never sprinted in my life. Even in training I didn't practice. The sprint is not my strongest point but probably after today I will change my mind because I was able to win. Maybe it is because I am sleeping in the same room as [Alessandro] Petacchi. Maybe his sprint power rubbed off on me."
Petacchi did help Stybar with some advice on the sprint, noting the headwind coming from the left, but it was patience that earned the victory on the stage. "I waited, waited, and waited for the right moment. I let the other guys pass, jumped on the wheel of Richeze and then I came out from his wheel and I did my sprint in the very last moment to be powerful enough to pass him."
Stybar will now turn his attention toward the overall classification: he sits in third, three seconds behind stage 2 winner Arnaud Demare (FDJ) and one second behind Boom, but knows he will have to pull off a special performance in the time trial in order to have a chance.
"I am focused on the TT. I know I will lose something but I want to try to go full gas and try to go into the final two stages in a good GC position. In Tour de Pologne I was pretty OK on the climbs. I will try to do my best on Saturday, and Sunday, the finish is more for my skills."