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The rush to find the next Tom Boonen is as unfair as Belgium’s post-Merckx search for the new Cannibal: such comparisons are stifling and place unnecessary and unfair pressure on young riders.
Jasper Stuyven knows all about that, having himself being saddled with the new Boonen tag in the past. Glittering amateur results such as victory in the world junior road race championship and the junior Paris-Roubaix raised interest in him and led to a contract with the Bontrager-Livestrong setup.
Subsequent performances included third in the espoir Liège-Bastogne-Liège and overall victory in the Volta ao Alentejo, as well as a pro deal with Trek Factory Racing in 2014. Cue the hype, heightened expectations in Belgium and, somewhat inevitably, an anti-climax.
“The Belgian media did put some pressure on me,” Stuyven tells CyclingTips, relaxing prior to the team’s evening meal at a Spanish training camp. “But then you see that in 2015 I had some bad luck and then you don’t count anymore. That’s the Belgian media. So I’m not really worried about that ever.
“I just put the pressure on myself and I don’t really care about what the media wants to write about me.”
Stuyven knows how things work: his country is crazy about the sport, the national media is given plenty of space to write about cycling and that in turn leads to greater exposure for the up and coming riders.
It’s a double-edged sword: the exposure can be useful in securing contracts, but it also places the spotlight on competitors at a young age and can lead to some hyperbole.
He understands the pattern.
“The media are trying to find the next big star,” he explains. “Last season, in 2015, Tiesj [Benoot] did really, really well and he was for everyone the new Tom Boonen. Then this season he had some bad luck, got a lot of sickness and injuries. Then they don’t talk about you any more.
“In Belgium, if you have one result everyone agrees that you are the new Tom Boonen. But if you don’t deliver right away after it, then they always find someone else to say that he is the new Tom. Is there actually one? I don’t know. We will see.”
The same sort of pressure can be seen in other countries: Jean Francois Bernard, for example, was held up as the next Bernard Hinault and suffocated under the comparisons. Ditto for Roy Knickman (the next Greg LeMond), Abraham Olano (once the next Miguel Indurain) and others.
Tejay Van Garderen, too, has had to shoulder the weight of expectation of being the next great American Grand Tour rider.
Stuyven’s quiet early 2015 took the pressure off and shunted the focus onto others. So was that a blessing in some ways?
“Actually, I like always a bit of pressure,” he responds. “It didn’t really make a change for me.”
He continued to work hard, winning stage eight in the Vuelta a España in a bunch gallop. That was impressive, but even more so when it emerged that he had fractured his wrist in a crash earlier that day.
He was a non-starter the following morning, but the result had turned that season around.
Learning from Cancellara
Stuyven was born in Leuven in Belgium in 1992. His grandfather was a fan of the sport and brought him to a race. Seeing cycling in the flesh struck a chord and he decided to give it a shot. He was soon hooked.
Growing up, he states that he didn’t have particular idols. He says that he enjoyed watching Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, particularly when they won, but generally got a kick out of watching winners. There wasn’t a particular rider that stood out for him.
Still, asking him to describe himself as a rider and it is clear he has aspects in common with the duo.
“I think I have a pretty big engine for my age. And that I can have a good tactics in the race. I think that’s also one of my strengths,” he states.
“I think I am a pretty ambitious rider, more built for Classics and short hills. And I’m also rider that not only can go for his own results but who is always ready to help a team mate to achieve his goals.”
That willingness to help others has seen him compete alongside Cancellara, who became a teammate when Stuyven joined Trek Factory Racing three years ago.
He’s ridden alongside the Swiss competitor from that point until his retirement last season. How did he find that time?
“Of course it’s nice to race with someone who has been winning a lot of the spring Classics races,” he replies. “It’s always nice to go to a race with a big leader who everyone believes in, who knows he can win it.
“That has been nice. Also, to see how the team runs behind him and how he deals with everything. So it has been an interesting three years.
“It was helpful to watch all that. You just see how he deals with the pressure, and then how he races. Many small things. But it is not that you can say this or that in particular: it is up to yourself to see and hear what you want to hear and see.”
Fortunately, his time with the team wasn’t all spent helping others. Stuyven had the chance to build up some impressive results of his own. Last February he put in a masterful performance in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, breaking away alone and holding off a hard-chasing group behind.
One month later he was a fine fifth in the WorldTour E3 Harelbeke, finishing just behind Sky’s Ian Stannard and Cancellara in the sprint for third.
Top ten finishes on stages of the Tour of California and Tour de Suisse then helped him hone his form for his first Tour de France, where he very nearly won the second stage. He was part of the day’s break and went solo in the finale, chasing both the day’s victory and the yellow jersey.
However he was overhauled inside the final kilometre, with the uphill finish giving the fresher riders behind the chance to catch and pass him.
The polka dot jersey was some compensation, with the Belgian wearing it until the end of stage five.
Asked what his career highlights are thus far, he mentions the French race. “I think my wins are important. And actually my performance at the worlds. And the Tour, how I rode there is also pretty high up there.
“Then for myself, also how I rode the Classics. The ones I didn’t get a result in because we had Fabian were for me pretty satisfying. The wins in Kuurne and the Vuelta are also high up there.”
Interestingly, although the Vuelta is a WorldTour event while Kuurne is not, he sees his performance in the latter as being more important.
“For me and also for the team, it showed that I can win in the races that I target. And that I am competitive in the spring Classics. It wasn’t only good for my own confidence, but also for the team.”
Now with Cancellara gone, Stuyven should have more chances. Even though John Degenkolb has joined the squad and will have leadership in some Classics, the younger rider believes that Cancellara’s departure should enable him to play his own card more often.
“I think I will have more opportunities, yes,” he says. “Obviously a lot will change. It’s not that we have that one absolute big leader. But it is interesting, it can make us stronger in the finals.
“I’m looking forward to it, that’s for sure. I think I’ll be a little bit more free in the finals to try for myself.”
Major long-term goals
Suyven wants to shine in this year’s Classics, but has taken a different approach than twelve months ago. The late world road race championships in 2016 plus his Japan Cup participation meant that he finished competing later than he did in 2015.
Consequently, his return to the bike after a post-season break was later and he has less training kilometres in his legs than he did before the start of 2016.
He had also planned to start competing in the Tour of Qatar. However that race’s cancellation delayed his season debut. He will now get things underway in the Volta ao Algarve on February 15, do Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne, then ride Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico and other semi-Classics plus the top one day events.
The latter will include Milan-San Remo.
“I want to do it this year, but not to target,” he says. “I just want to be there. And of course, I should be in good shape already there. I think it’s good to get some more experience there. It is a really nice race and with John [Degenkolb] we have someone who won it. So it is nice to go there with a good goal and good ambitions.”
A little further ahead in the year, he wants to ride strongly in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, believing that the latter suits his characteristics perfectly. After that, he will head to the Giro, play his own hand early on and also help team leader Bauke Mollema in the general classification.
Now 24, he wants to step things up a level in 2017. “I want to be really competitive in the finals of big Classics,” he says. “And of course you always want to win a Grand Tour stage. We’ll see which Grand Tour that will be. It’s another goal.”
Longer term, he’s clear about his ambition, pinpointing victories in the biggest one day events.
“I want to win, more than one time, Roubaix or Flanders. That’s the biggest goal,” he says. “Also, since I was world champion before, it is still fresh in my memory what that feeling is like. I hope to experience that one more time during my career.”
Forget those early new Boonen/Cancellara comparisons. Stuyven’s got his own goals, his own hunger, and will chase targets on his own terms.