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Ždenek Štybar: Strongest legs, not skills in the rain, will win Paris-Roubaix

Veteran 'crosser hopes for third time lucky after twice placing second in the velodrome and coming back strong from heart ablation surgery this spring.

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LILLE, France (VN) – Ždenek Štybar will be hoping for strong legs and a dose of “third time lucky” at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday.

Štybar will pound the pavé for the eighth time in his career this weekend and is backing himself to go one better after twice coming a frustratingly close second-place in the Roubaix velodrome.

As if the incentive of twice playing the bridesmaid wasn’t enough, the perennial cobblestone contender has a point to prove Sunday.

Štybar missed much of the spring after undergoing heart ablation surgery, and few thought he would return to form – until he raced to seventh place at last weekend’s world championships, that is.

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“I think a lot of people didn’t believe me that I’d get back to my old level after my ablation after Gent-Wevelegem,” Štybar said in a press call Thursday. “But I’m back on my old level, last week I showed that I can compete again with the best ones. I think that I’m in good shape to race again for victory.”

After placing seventh at both the worlds and the Primus Classic this month and having finished in the top-10 of all-but-one of his appearances at Paris-Roubaix to date, the 35-year-old Štybar is a veritable smokey for the cobblestone trophy this weekend.

Racing alongside a typically stacked Deceuninck-Quick-Step crew including Tour of Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen, on-form fastman Florian Sénéchal, and 2019 third-place finisher Yves Lampaert further stacks the chips in Stybar’s favor.

But unlike his teammates, some of whom showed hints of nervousness at the prospect of a soggy ride through the stones this weekend, triple cyclocross world champ Štybar has no fear of the forecasts of a rainy Roubaix.

“Difficult to say,” Štybar said when asked if a CX background would lend him and top contenders Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel the upper hand.

“The biggest advantage you get comes from having strong legs. So mainly I hope that the legs will be there. In the end, in Paris-Roubaix, there’s not many corners where you can really take some advantage. I just hope for a good day and for good legs.”

Štybar’s heart surgery forced him to sit out Tour of Flanders this spring, a race he has dubbed one of his favorites of the road calendar.

Missing De Ronde and the tail-end of the classics season has given the Czech powerhouse a lot of time to give thought to his other monument muse, Paris-Roubaix. Much of that time seems to have been spent rewinding the sprint finishes that got away from him – those when he finished second to John Degenkolb in 2015 and then to Greg van Avermaet in 2017.

“I was thinking back to the sprints I did. The first one I learned something when I sprinted against Degenkolb, then I thought I would do it better again another time. When I sprinted against Greg it didn’t work out and I learned something again,” Štybar said.

“I hope it [i.e, being beaten in a sprint] will never happen again – or I have to finish alone.”

After making a comeback that few would have believed in during the spring, perhaps 2021 is the year that Štybar makes it third time lucky in the autumn.