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When Peter Sagan made it into the front group of the Olympic mountain-bike race earlier this month, road cycling fans marveled at seeing one of the sport’s biggest stars competing with the best in the world on dirt and knobby tires. And while there’s something uniquely compelling about a world-class cyclist cross over from one discipline to another, Sagan is far from the only one.
Czech rider Zdenek Stybar — winner of Strade Bianche and Eneco Tour, stage winner at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, and podium finisher at Paris-Roubaix — is no stranger to rainbow stripes, with three elite world cyclocross titles to his name.
Stybar’s first world championship title came in 2010, in front of his compatriots in Tabor, Czech Republic. He defended his title one year later, in Sankt Wendel, Germany. Then, in 2014, after three years spent focused on the road, Stybar returned to ’cross worlds to deliver a duel for the ages against Sven Nys, in Hoogerheide, Netherlands — a race he only decided to do a few days earlier, riding to the venue from his home in Essen, Belgium.
A powerful rider with a strong sprint, Stybar left his Telenet-Fidea cyclocross team to sign a road contract with QuickStep in 2011, a few months after his second world title. He finished third overall in his first stage race with the team, Four Days of Dunkirk. In 2012, he again opened his road season at Dunkirk, winning a stage and finishing second overall. A stage win at the Tour of Poland followed.
The 2013 season was Stybar’s breakthrough, however. He was in contention for victory at his Paris-Roubaix debut, part of the leading trio with Sep Vanmarcke and Fabian Cancellara, when he clipped a spectator in Carrefour de l’Arbre, just 15km from the finish; he finished sixth. In August, at the Eneco Tour, he won two stages, and the overall. Two weeks later, he beat out Philippe Gilbert to win a stage at the Vuleta a España, his first Grand Tour stage win.
A popular rider with road and cyclocross fans, Stybar, 30, is handsome and smiling, generous with his time to fans and media alike, speaking perfect English with a heavy Czech accent.
Stybar is a champion, but he’s also a rider who has faced difficult moments. At the 2014 Eneco Tour, Stybar, the defending champion, crashed into steel barriers near the finish line of Stage 4 in Ardooie and fell face first to the tarmac, smashing out his upper front teeth and scarring his face. He returned to racing quickly, ending his road season with a win at the Belgian one-day race Binche-Chimay-Binche, just ahead of John Degenkolb. But in a bizarre coincidence, in October 2014 he again crashed heavily in Ardooie, this time in an early season cyclocross race, requiring surgery to repair a separated shoulder and ruptured ligaments. That was the end of his 2014-2015 cyclocross season, and he regretfully skipped another chance to perform at a world championship in Tabor; at that race, Mathieu van der Poel, then 19, defeated Wout Van Aert, then 20, signaling a new era for the cyclocross elite.
The 2015 road season was Stybar’s best yet. He won Strade Bianche, finished second at E3 Harelbeke and Paris-Roubaix, and won his first stage of the Tour de France, powering away from a reduced peloton on a short, steep climb, crossing the line in Le Havre two seconds ahead of Peter Sagan. That celebration was short lived, however, as his teammate (and race leader) Tony Martin crashed in the final kilometer, and was forced to abandon with a compound clavicle fracture while wearing the maillot jaune.
The 2016 was poised to be Stybar’s year to shine at the Spring Classics. And in early March, that looked to be the case. He finished second to Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) at Strade Bianche, then went on to win a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico, finishing seventh overall in the weather-shortened Italian stage race. However it all went downhill there, with an eighth place at the Tour of Flanders the only time he would crack the top 10 between Tirreno and Roubaix. He later discovered he’d picked up a virus at Tirreno-Adriatico, which had impacted his season so much that he would not return to the Tour de France.
After two weeks of the bike, Stybar returned to racing at the Amgen Tour of California — where this interview took place — followed by the Tour de Suisse and the Czech national championship. He was not selected for the Tour, instead racing the Tour of Poland, Clasica San Sebastian, and the Olympic road race in Rio de Janeiro — all without notable results. He finished second at his road nationals, to Roman Kreuziger, and rode in a support role in Rio, applying pressure across the race’s cobblestone section during the junction between the Grumari and Canoas/Vista Chinesa circuits. He did not finish the Olympic road race.
Stybar is currently competing at the Vuelta a España, where his Etixx-QuickStep team has won three of the first 10 stages under Gianni Meersman and David de la Cruz, with the Spaniard spending Stage 10 in the red leader’s jersey.
After the Vuelta, Stybar will return to the Eneco Tour, and hopes to race the world road championship in Doha, Qatar, in October. Following a break, he’ll return to cyclocross in December for the Christmas period [Kerstperiode], but as always, he’ll be focused on peaking for the 2017 Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Whether it’s racing cyclocross, cobbled classics, or the Eneco Tour, Stybar seems to ride at his best on Belgian soil.
CyclingTips: When you look back at your 2016 spring season, how do you rate it?
Zdenek Stybar: You know, I think I had the best winter ever, everything was really perfect. I felt the condition was really, very good. I changed a few little things in the preparation, and I also skipped the first weekend in Belgium, so I could do extra training and get to Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico in good shape. At Strade, I felt that I was good. I felt I was close to my top condition. I wasn’t there, but I was close, and I could still be there with Cancellara. At Tirreno I won a stage, so I thought, ‘great, here we go, it’s just as we planned.’ But then, with the rest day in Tirreno [Stage 5 was cancelled due to weather], I don’t know what happened, but I got some virus, and after that, everything went wrong. The Monday stage at Tirreno [Stage 6] I felt like I was not really 100%, but it was the day after a rest day, and I never feel great after a rest day, even when I am training. I thought that was it. Then the time trial, it was the same story. I started really fast, because I thought I could do well, maybe not win, but finish on the podium. I was going for it, and I was completely blocked the last three kilometers. At Harelbeke I had a flat tire, and at San Remo I crashed, so I didn’t do the finale. I thought everything was fine. Maybe not 100% healthy, but I didn’t have a fever. The body just wasn’t working 100%.
At Harelbeke, I had a flat tire on the Eikenberg, and then when Kwiatkowski and Sagan went, I tried, but I couldn’t. And I thought it was probably because of the flat tire, it cost me a lot of effort to come back. At Gent-Wevelgem, I was better, and at Flanders I was getting close to my level, but when we went on the Kwaremont, I just couldn’t do what I normally can. And at Roubaix, it was a complete disaster. It was just hell on earth. After the first 100km, it was okay, the first sectors of pavé, it was okay, but then when there was the crash, where Tom [Boonen] rode away, with Tony [Martin], I saw that, from 100 metres away. I thought I would easily close it, and I sped up, but I couldn’t close it, and I was just left wondering what was wrong with me. Then I was in the crash there at Arenberg, and then I had to continue to Roubaix. So I really suffered a lot.
After that, I went to have a medical check, and apparently I had a virus, already back to Tirreno. Between Flanders and Roubaix, I got it again, and above it, something bacterial. So my body was completely empty. After Roubaix I took two weeks completely off. I was on antibiotics for 10 days, to get rid of the bacterial infection. And the virus, before I left for California, it was not active anymore, but the body still needs to get rid of it. There were still signs of the virus, and it had been in my body from Tirreno. It was very disappointing for me, because I had a really great winter, and I started really well. In Mallorca, Algarve, Strade, and Tirreno, everything was going as planned. And then, for the main two to three weeks of the spring, the body just didn’t work. I could go sub-maximum, but not to make the big difference, or any attacks. The body didn’t work at the last 90-100%.
CT: At Gent-Wevelgem, Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara, and Sep Vanmarcke went clear on the Kemmelberg to form the winning move. You were there, along with Greg Van Avermaet, close but unable to close the gap. What happened?
ZS: Yeah, I think Sep Vanmarcke, je missed a corner on the top of the Kemmelberg, and then there was a very tricky downhill. Sep was maybe 20 metres in front, then was Greg, then me. There was a very sharp turn to the left, from zero, we had to speed up again, and Sep could just manage to jump on the wheel of Sagan and Cancellara. We were just hanging there, and they were gone. We had many guys from our team behind, so I didn’t ride. We tried to chase them down, but it didn’t work.
CT: For the spring classics, Roubaix is your best result — you’ve been second, and would have been on the podium another time if you hadn’t clipped a spectator — but which is the race that suits you the most?
ZS: Yeah, I can’t really explain why, because when I changed from cyclocross to the road, I always thought that Flanders would be my race, and Roubaix was something I’d try out. And I was directly there, sixth, at my first race, and could have been on the podium if I didn’t have the accident with the spectator. It was really unexpected, and every year I’ve made a little progress there. So, for me, it goes a bit easier, there, to get the result. At Flanders, I think it also takes a little bit of experience. This year was my fourth spring season. I still think Harelbeke, last year I was second, and Flanders, it should suit me as well. I also feel every year I am getting better, it’s just that the result is not there.
CT: How did you feel at the Amgen Tour of California?
ZS: It was hard. Normally I would restart at the Tour of Belgium, but the plan was changed because some guys were injured, and sick. And actually, if I hadn’t been sick, I wouldn’t have restarted in California, so I came out of shape, after only two weeks back on the bike. It was great training, and also my first time racing in California. It’s tough racing, especially when you are out of shape, and especially when your team has the yellow jersey. But it was fun. It was enjoyable. The day into South Lake Tahoe was really tough. We climbed 4,000 metres in elevation, to high altitude. Every day was really hard.
CT: What experience did you have racing in the U.S. before California?
ZS: Last year, in Richmond (for the world road championships), and before that, the BMX world championships, in Michigan. It was 1994, and I was eight years old.
CT: Last year you won a stage of the Tour de France — was that the highlight of your career?
ZS: You know, I’ve been asked this question very often. It’s still split between the world championships, in Tabor, and the Tour stage. For me, Tabor was something I was preparing for, for three years. It was my first world title racing with the professionals. I was really focused on that race. I really wanted to win there, in front of the Czech crowd. It was really amazing. At the Tour, of course, it’s the Tour de France, it’s amazing, it’s on the same level, but after the race, Tony Martin left the Tour. And also, at the Tour, it’s day by day, so I won, we had a glass of champagne, then you go to sleep and you race again the next day. So with all the experience around in Tabor, it was really very special, but it was also an amazing success at the Tour, like in cyclocross.
CT: There was a moment after that Tour stage win, on live TV, you were being interviewed, and Tony Martin passed through the mixed zone, injured and in the yellow jersey, and you stopped the interview to ask him if he was okay, and he told you, ‘It’s fine, just enjoy your moment.’ What was that like, to have it play out on live TV?
ZS: Yeah, in that moment, you want to celebrate your life’s success, but you also want to cry because your friend, and teammate, and the yellow jersey, is leaving your team. That was a bit strange, that evening.
CT: You’ve been with Etixx all of your road career, starting in 2011, and the owner of the team, Zdenek Bakala, is also Czech. He took ownership of the team in 2011. Is there a connection there? Is that how you ended up with the Etixx team?
ZS: No, not really. The deal was already made before I learned that Bakala was coming into the team. We see him two times in the year. But of course it’s nice that the owner of the team is a Czech guy. I started here, I got the opportunity to start on the road on this team. I know everyone. It feels very familiar. I still have a contract for next year. After that, we’ll talk again.
CT: And what about the Tour de France? [This interview took place before the Etixx-QuickStep Tour team selection.]
ZS: You know, I want to be 100%. If I’m only 90%, or that I’m not really ready, then I’d prefer that some other guy who is 100% is going, and that I’m not taking his place. Even though I won a stage last year, if I would go again, I would want to be 100%. It is so tough, so hard, with our team, we only go for stage wins, so you really must be 100%. Otherwise, it’s a pity to go, if you can’t help the team, and you can’t try to win a stage, you’re just suffering for three weeks. If you have condition, you think more positively. You want to help the guys, you want to try to win a stage. Last year was amazing, the first 10 days was the best moment of my cycling career. We won so much, but we also lost so much. We could write a book just about that Tour de France.
CT: When you watch the cyclocross races, and you see Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel battling for the win, is there any part of you that would like to go and race these young guys?
ZS: Yeah, of course. I did one race last year, in Essen [on December 5], with them. I really enjoyed it, but I started in the last row, because I had no points, and there was no place to pass the others, so it’s a little bit tough. [Stybar finished 20th out of 35 riders, 3:02 behind van Aert.] But I was surprised, because I was not really completely out of the technique. And I did it without any real training. After my road break, I trained maybe two weeks. So I was completely out of shape. I had a flat tire on the last lap, otherwise I think I could have been 12th or 13th. If I was to really start again, I think I could regularly be top 10. To win would be difficult, on every parcours, because with road racing, you miss the explosivity, and the technique. I think I will get back into it. I think it’s trainable. But with Wout and Mathieu, they are really big talents, so it’s not like you will race against… top five, it’s possible, but to really beat the best, now, it will take me a full year to get on their level.
CT: There are a lot of cyclocross fans who see those two, and then there’s a big void, because there is no rider of the older generation who can match them. The only one who might be able to races on the road instead.
ZS: Yeah, I hear it a lot, ‘Hey, how many races will you do next year?’ Always, when I stop the road season, I get so many questions, ‘Which races will you do?’ This year, I will do the Christmas period [Kerstperiode] again. But it’s so difficult to combine with road preparation, because between Christmas and New Year, it’s six different races. If I were to do them all, I would miss three weeks of training on the road. That’s too much, to also be ready to try and win the biggest races on the road. It’s so specific now, and every detail is counted.
Also, it’s mentally also very hard. When you do cyclocross, already in December you have a number on your back. You do the warming up, the cooling down. You are already racing. It can cost you some mental power, which you will miss in the last part of the classics, for Flanders and Roubaix. Now, when I see how my spring went, I think, maybe I can have some fun. I didn’t do cyclocross, and I also didn’t do very well in the classics. Okay, the reason is known now. But I think it will always be very difficult to combine those two. Lars Boom did it last year, and I think it can be great training, but I am too ambitious, I want to race too hard. It just takes a lot of power.
I’ve heard that in the U.S., cyclocross is very popular. I was just looking into the two World Cups that will be in the U.S. but it’s just the same week as the Eneco Tour. It’s changed now, because of the worlds in Qatar, end of October, so Eneco Tour is end of September.
CT: Do you have a love/hate relationship with the Eneco Tour? What are your emotions when you think of that race?
ZS: Yeah, I won there, but I also had the serious crash. Ah, a lot of guys have crashed at the Tour de France, and they’ve still gone back and raced there. It’s not like I want to stay away from the race, but for sure, when we do the stage into Ardooie, I think I will have a lot of respect for that stage.
CT: What do you know about the Doha world championships?
ZS: I just know the same as everyone else. It’s flat. I raced there one time, in the Tour of Qatar, on the local laps. On paper, it’s a bunch sprint. But it depends on how we will race it. I would like to go. I really enjoyed last year, in Richmond. Every year Czech cycling is getting higher and higher, and it’s nice to help the younger guys.
CT: Your third world cyclocross title, against Sven Nys in Hoogerheide, was about as exciting as a cyclocross race can be.
ZS: Yeah, it was nice. It was a really nice fight. It was amazing, that race. I went there actually by bike. We have our second house in Belgium. It was 20-25km to the race. So I thought, okay, I’ll just go from home to the race, and do the race, and then do the recon of Flanders and go back to Mallorca. It was one of those days where everything worked.
CT: So you rode, from your house, to the world championship, which you won? That was your warmup?
ZS: That was my warmup. Then I did a few laps, and then the race. It was a ‘local race.’ I had no stress. When I went to the race, I thought, ‘Okay, I can do a top five,’ because the shape was not too bad. And also the parcours was really good for me, it was not too technical, it was more for the power, and also only a little bit of running. I was running a little bit in the winter, but still. The most difficulty is always to get the rhythm, and also a one-hour effort, it is really very intense. And without any other races to do that, sometimes you miss the last 10 minutes, when you are just completely a bloc. I had a good day there, and everything fell into place. It was nice.
CT: Peter Sagan was a junior world champion on the mountain bike, and took a silver medal in the junior cyclocross championship. If he were to return to cyclocross or cross-country, and take a medal at an elite world championship, would you be surprised?
ZS: Not really. He’s got the technical skills, so there he won’t miss. But you have to train it. The guys who do it, they are all year preparing only for cyclocross or cross-country. If you come there as a road racer, you will always miss a little bit. I think he could do very good, but you also have to invest and do specific training, the intervals, and the speed after the accelerations. If it’s a circuit where you just have to push with power, I think he could win by one minute. But with all the little accelerations, and the technique — because it’s different, when you are completely a bloc, to jump over rocks and things like this — that’s where you can make some mistakes. But he has such good technical skills, he can do it, but it’s difficult to say. To get in between, and win directly, you also need to have a really good day. It’s hard to predict. When I went to Hoogerheide, nobody predicted I could win. Some days, everything falls into place, and it just works. And that could also happen to him.