Ardooie has a population of 9,161, and it felt as though most of their number were rushing along Stationstraat to offer their congratulations to Trek-Segafredo directeur sportif Dirk Demol after Jasper Stuyven won stage 4 of the BinckBank Tour.
Demol is a resident of Ardooie, and the finish is a staple of the BinckBank (and formerly Eneco) Tour. Every year, the Belgian makes a point of having his team target victory in the stage but until Stuyven powered off the front of the peloton with a little over a kilometre to go here, the homecoming had always fallen flat.
"I live here so of course for me it's almost like the World Championships if I go home with a nice result," a beaming Demol told Cyclingnews. "It's never easy because it's almost always a top sprinter who wins here. With the team we have here, we realised that if there was a pure sprint, we would have no chance. We talked about it for the last two or three days.
"I try to be there for all the riders but I said, 'Boys, I want something special from you. I live here so please make sure I can come back home with a result.' I'm super happy."
The Trek-Segafredo tactics were straightforward, but the simplest plans tend to be the most difficult to execute. Putting a mass of red jerseys on the front on the final lap of the finishing circuit was easier said than done, but Ryan Mullen and Mads Pedersen led the charge for Trek. When Stuyven made his acceleration, they sat up and allowed a gap to develop.
"We talked about the chicane with one kilometre to go," Demol said. "We had to do it with four or five riders in front and then leave a gap. Then you just have to sprint all the way to the finish line and it worked. It's always nice when someone from the team wins, and it's even better when you make a plan and it works out. And it's my hometown, so it's super nice."
The Trek scheme would have been nothing, of course, without a finisseur to complete the work of Mullen et al, and Stuyven was up to the task. The Leuven native had the power to hold off the fast-finishing Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) and Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors) to land his first win of the season.
"Every year Dirk says it's an important day for the team and for him, so we always try to make the best out of it," Stuyven said in the press room in Ardooie afterwards. "Today we made a plan to do it like this. We [riders] actually came up with the plan ourselves, and Dirk and Steven [de Jongh] supported our idea. They knew we had the guys to bring me in the first position with 1k to go because it's always a big fight to get there. I think it's really nice. We all committed to the plan. We all believed we could do it and I think that made the difference today."
Stuyven's victory lifts him to 19th place in the general classification, 53 seconds down on Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida), but he downplayed his chances of making a run at overall victory on the tough final weekend doubleheader in the hills of Limburg and the Flemish Ardennes. Even so, he is an obvious contender to win Sunday's concluding stage over the Mur and Bosberg to Geraardsbergen, in a repeat of his triumph of a year ago.
"Of course, I won it last year and everybody thinks I'll win it again, but that's not how it goes in cycling. For sure it's a nice stage. I like it when it's a little bit longer. The hard days benefit the stronger classics rider to make it a nice race and fight for the win," Stuyven said. "There's a lot of strong guys also in front of me so I'll focus on getting stage results. If we get ahead, maybe the GC will come with that. We'll see."
Stuyven entered the professional ranks in 2014 with the most gilded of reputations after winning the junior world title in 2009, the junior version of Paris-Roubaix the following year, and then showcasing his dexterity by placing third in the under-23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2013.
Given that he stepped up to WorldTour racing just as Belgian cycling was beginning to look in earnest for the next Tom Boonen, the weight of expectation might have proved crippling, but Stuyven has developed steadily in the intervening period. A stage win in the 2015 Vuelta a España and victory at the 2016 Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne caught the eye, but Stuyven's quiet consistency is also notable. This Spring alone, he was in the top 10 at the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Gent-Wevelgem, Milan-San Remo, E3 Harelbeke and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
"In his first professional years, we tried to keep him calm where we could by saying everything starts when you're 26 or 27. He's 26 now, and he has a nice career in front of him. It looks like he's not a guy who wins a lot of races, but he's won some nice ones," Demol said. "He has made top 10 places everywhere. He's ready. The day will come when he wins a big one."
For the day that's in it, of course, Demol's private World Championships in Ardooie is big enough.
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