MAIRENA DEL ALJARAFE, Spain (VN) — The transition from the mud of cyclocross to the speed of road is now complete for Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who swept to victory Friday at the Vuelta a España.
Stybar not only kept the reigning world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) in the winless column, but the Czech fended off the fast-charging pack to claim his most important win on pavement.
“It was really full-gas all the way to the line,” Stybar said. “I felt the peloton coming from behind, so I knew it was everything or nothing.”
The victory, his first in a grand tour, crowns Stybar’s high profile move from cyclocross to road racing.
“I am glad I dared to make the step from cyclocross to road,” he said. “Now I am on a good way on the road, and I hope for even more successes.”
In 2011, after winning back-to-back world titles and emerging as the dominant force on the mud-track circuit, Stybar shocked many by walking way from ’cross and taking on the road. Of course, there is a lot more money to be made racing on the road, but it was a risk nonetheless.
Cycling history is filled with athletes who have tried with mixed results crossing over disciplines. Dutch sprinter Theo Bos (Belkin) ruled the boards, but has since struggled on the road after leaving track cycling in 2008. Olympic mountain bike gold medalist Miguel Martínez barely made a ripple on the road scene before returning to mountain biking, complaining that on the dirt, he had a chance to win every day he raced, while road racing proved too complex and demanding.
Stybar, however, quickly proved he has the brawn and tactical prowess to last on the road.
The Czech rode to podiums in his first road races in 2011, and won his first races last year, with wins at the Tour of Poland and Four Days of Dunkirk, and made it to Madrid in his grand tour debut in the Vuelta last year.
“I am really happy with my progression,” he said. “Every year I make small improvements and I feel stronger every year. I am happy that I could show myself.”
This year has seen an ever-bigger breakout, including two stage wins and the overall at the Eneco Tour before coming to the Vuelta this year. Stybar overcame a midseason knee surgery to roar into the second half of the season with improving form.
“This victory means a lot,” he said. “I won my first stage at Eneco, but I was not recovering well, and I really suffered the first few days. I never expected to win a grand tour stage so far. You have some ideas in your head, but this is sooner than expected.”
Stybar’s main focus will remain on the spring classics — in particular, the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix. His cyclocross skills actually come in handy in those punishing, brutal, one-day classics, and this year, he was poised for greatness until an untimely late-race crash at Roubaix. He ultimately finished sixth.
“Next year I will take my revenge,” he said of Roubaix. “When I changed from cyclocross to road, the main goals were the spring classics. Those are my dream races, and I want to keep focusing on them.”
Stybar said he’s never going back to cyclocross, and remains firmly committed to the road. Omega Pharma, with its deep roots in the classics and its billionaire owner from the Czech Republic, all add up to make things easier for Stybar.