Zdenek Stybar held his head in his hands as he sat in the centre of the Roubaix velodrome, knowing he had missed a great chance to win Paris-Roubaix – and it was not just his own second-place finish that stung.
The hopes and dreams of Stybar's Quick-Step teammate Tom Boonen retiring with a final and fifth victory ended Sunday when a series of attacks put Stybar, Greg Van Avermaet, Sebastian Langeveld up the road and left Boonen stuck behind.
Boonen eventually finished 13th in the chase group at 12 seconds, dissatisfied with the result but happy to let the curtain come down on his long, successful career.
Stybar led out the sprint on the final banking of the velodrome but Van Avermaet powered past him to hit the line first and win. Second place meant little to Stybar; he wanted to see Boonen on the podium and possibly on the top step.
"In normal circumstances I would have been happy but today I'm disappointed. My biggest dream was to ride here with Tom into the velodrome together and it didn't happen," Stybar said in the post-race press conference after climbing on the second step of the podium and watching winner Van Avermaet lift the winner's cobblestone trophy.
"Tom is a very special person, a very kind person and very friendly. If you can, you just do everything for him. We didn't feel like we had to, we wanted to; we wanted to give 100 per cent for him because he deserved it. All the team was supporting him and we all wished in our hearts that Tom could win. We did everything possible to make it happen. I actually thought that he might still be able to come back but when they said it was 40 seconds and even more, then we knew that it would be really difficult."
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Stybar admitted that he struggled to focus on racing for victory when he realised the three-rider attack with Van Avermaet and Langeveld was going to stay away until the velodrome.
"Of course, it's disappointing to get second place but on the other hand I didn't have it in the head to ride for myself," he confessed.
"Before the race, I didn't have it in my mind to ride for myself or even to sprint for a win. Then at certain moments in the finale I even thought I should drop back to bring him back and to pull the other guys to come to the front.
"If you have it in your mind that you are helping and then suddenly you're in the position to win, it's difficult to change your mind. I did all that I could in the sprint but everybody knows that Greg is very strong in the sprint and very fast especially after such a hard race as Paris-Roubaix."
Stybar salvaged Quick-Step Floors' Paris-Roubaix when 'Plan Boonen' didn't come off. He looked stronger and fresher than his leader in the finale of the race, closing gaps and chasing accelerations. When Boonen told him to ride for himself, he jumped across to the attack that surged clear with 30km to go on the Templeuve sector of cobbles.
The balance of power up front and behind was virtually equal, and so the move stayed away, with Stybar, Van Avermaet and Langeveld eventually dropping Gianni Moscon (Sky), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal) before Stuyven and Moscon rejoined to make it a five-man finish in the velodrome. Boonen was fading behind and thinking about retirement.
Stybar denied that Quick-Step Floors' simple tactic of going all-in for Boonen left them exposed but admitted that their rivals took advantage of it. Quick-Step Floors did a lot of chasing early on, using up key riders such as Yves Lampaert and Matteo Trentin – and 2014 winner Niki Terpstra abandoned after a crash – so Boonen only had Stybar to help him in the finale, while Trek-Segafredo rode a more tactical race, marking Boonen closely, much to the Belgian's anger.
"I think the race was so hard it wouldn't have changed anything," Stybar said.
"With 180 kilometres, I was really blocked and I didn't think that I would be able to make it to the finish with Tom in the first group. That was also a reason why at certain moments I jumped on everything that went. It was all about making Tom win.
"We had to close all the gaps but everybody was racing – I don't want to say against us, but everyone knew that we wanted to win and that Tom wanted to win and we were riding all for him. For the other teams it was a bit easier to ride that way.
"I just tried to make it as comfortable as possible for Tom and then I closed the gap to Sebastian and Roelandts. I was cramping and I thought this was the end. But I still managed to bridge the gap. Then Greg came from behind and the race was over."
Stybar's second Roubaix runner-up finish – he pipped Van Avermaet himself for runner-up honors behind John Degenkolb in 2015 – confirmed his potential for the cobbled Classics and he stands as one of the natural heirs to Boonen's leader status at Quick-Step Floors in the future.
Despite only racing full-time on the road for five years after an illustrious cyclo-cross career, Stybar has finished sixth, fifth, second, 110th and second in his five rides at Paris-Roubaix.
He dismissed a suggestion that he is the new Van Avermaet, the talented nice-guy rider who is often beaten by other riders.
"For sure I can still progress. The season wasn't quite what I wanted until now, unfortunately, there was always something happening in the races that I loved so much so I never really reached the result I wanted. This year was all for Tom but I'll be back next year for sure."
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