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From the Pages of Velo: At a Crossroads

World cyclocross champ Zdenek Stybar struggles with fame, injury and the prospect of becoming a classics rider

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This story originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of VeloNews magazine. We run it here, the day after Zdenek Stybar won his third cyclocross world title in Hoogerheide, Netherlands. Since this this story’s publication, Stybar has joined Omega Pharma-Quick Step, won a stage at the Vuelta a España, and finished sixth at Paris-Roubaix, in 2013.

BRUSSELS (VN) — It’s Friday afternoon in Essen, Belgium, a small village just south of the Dutch border.

A light rain is falling — it does most days in November — and Zdenek Stybar has just spent more than an hour opening his legs behind a deurne. Climbing out of a silver Skoda Superb carrying his name on the doors, Stybar offers a firm handshake and the easy smile that most often greets his neighbors.

“Do you want soup?” he asks.

Stybar is ravenous, and a local restaurant owned by Bruno, the head of his supporters club, is the destination. Apologizing for a mess that isn’t there, he pulls the wagon quickly and smoothly past small, symmetrical gardens lining the narrow, cobbled streets of Essen. The Czech transplant parks two doors from the deli, in front of a window where a poster for the GP Rouwmoer in December carries his picture.

In the long Belgian winter, cyclocross is king, and the world champion a celebrity. Stybar, who moved to Essen three years ago to be with his girlfriend, Ine, is no exception. Whether he’s chatting with locals over the deli counter or dropping in on a 100-rider group ride, Stybar is the pride of Essen. On the way in the door, Stybar asks for a quiet corner table, if it’s not too much trouble. Just as he does three times a week, the biggest name on the biggest team in Belgium orders the soup of the day: a root vegetable broth brewed that morning. The soup arrives quick and hot and the 24-year-old is open about his modest beginnings in Planá, a town of 6,000 in the Plzen Region of the Czech Republic.

“Especially in the beginning my parents supported me a lot,” he says. “We were not really a rich family, so everything was very difficult. My sister was there as well and it was very difficult for them to give the same to her as me.”

The family is close, speaking almost daily. According to Stybar, since his niece was born two years ago, he and his sister Aneta have emailed at least five times a day, and he knows his father is watching on the weekends when his son battles Sven Nys, a family favorite when they were chasing junior races. “He doesn’t say it, but I think that inside he is really proud because I think it was his dream at the same time that we would go so far,” he says.

Stybar took up a racing habit as a child on the BMX track. He made his way through track, mountain, road and finally cyclocross, the latter providing his best results. Stybar’s father, also named Zdenek, loaded the family’s small Honda Civic for the weekend trips to Belgium.

“My father was the mechanic and after the races he was so tired from cleaning bikes that after 200 kilometers he would start to fall asleep, so I had to drive home,” says Stybar, laughing. “Now I have five bikes, 20 pairs of wheels and a big camper. Around me if I counted, it’s probably 10 people that just take care of me.” Stybar recalls finishing third in his first try at junior worlds: “The year after I was again third, so it was going well, and the second year of under-23 I won the world championship.”

That result carried Stybar onto the Telenet-Fidea team of world champs Bart Wellens and Erwin Vervecken, a dream come true.

“From the first time he was always a professional,” said Vervecken, who spent three years alongside the newly professional Stybar. “He is focused and everything is for the job.”

With Vervecken moving to Revor-Jartazi in his final year and Wellens battling cytomegalovirus, Stybar made the 2009-10 season his own. The Czech rolled off wins in Hasselt, Roubaix and Koksijde en route to the world title he earned in front of his home crowd in Tabor, Czech Republic.

“I had a lot of pressure from the press from Belgium and from Czech. That was really difficult,” he says, recounting the week leading into worlds atop the World Cup standings. “When I crossed the line, the first one I met there was my girlfriend. It was just so emotional, we hoped the moment would never stop.”

The pressure weighed heavily on Stybar’s shoulders, but the legs that carried him to the Czech championship on the same course in early January did not disappoint. The win was more a relief than anything, and after doping control, Stybar secluded himself in his hotel room with his family and friends for the evening. Ten months later, he says the only thing that could possibly top the world championship at home would be an Olympic gold medal. Cyclocross is not an Olympic event, and Stybar, a capable road racer with podiums at the Tours of Slovakia and Qinghai Lake, has been public about his interest in transitioning from the dirt to the pavé of the northern classics. When asked about an opportunity to join a ProTeam program, he says, “I don’t know. It’s something I must try.” A week after he sat down with VeloNews came the announcement that Patrick Lefevere, head of the Belgian Quick Step road team, had sold a majority stake to Zdenek Bakala, one of the Czech Republic’s wealthiest financiers. A shot at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix alongside cobbles star Tom Boonen was suddenly on the table.

Stybar knows a shift to the road provides greater opportunity for his profile to grow. At the same time, he knows that he cannot excel in both disciplines, and the inner conflict is apparent in his eyes.

Vervecken thinks his former teammate would be better served by staying in cyclocross where he could quite possibly be one of the all-time greats.

“I wouldn’t do it if I were him,” said Vervecken. “If he goes to the road, he’s a fine road racer, but there are 100 others at that level. It would be better financially to stay with cyclocross. He can make double the salary in cyclocross.”

Another young world champion, Lars Boom, made the transition to the top ranks of road racing a year after winning his elite title in 2008. Since joining the Rabobank ProTour squad, Boom has made a name with stage wins at the Vuelta a España and Paris-Nice. But Boom was a U23 time trial world champion and spent the road season with the Rabobank Continental team before leaving cyclocross. Stybar’s road resume, relatively, is lacking.

Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) considered a similar move after closing the 2009-10 season with a DNF in his worlds defense. He told Het Nieuwsblad that making a decision of this nature is troubling in the middle of the season. “If things remain uncertain for (Stybar) for a couple of months, that’s going to take its toll mentally. I would find it really annoying to be in that position,” said Albert. “I doubt I would be able to perform at my best, because certainty is really important for a rider.”

In the corner of the deli, the soup bowls are empty. Stybar orders a chicken sandwich and talks about his win in Hasselt and the door it opened for him. “It’s always hardest to win the first race,” he says. “The goal for the season was to make a stable season and I wanted just to stay on the podium and one day I would win if it goes right. And then I won in Hasselt and the day after in Hamme-Zogge. I went two months before I won one race and on that weekend I won two races.”

Twenty-four hours to the minute later, Lamboukrediet’s Nys is on the front of a three-man group in Hasselt, pulling Stybar and his teammate Kevin Pauwels through the dry, technical course at the provincial college near the eastern border with the Netherlands. In the end, the rider dubbed Štybie (pronounced Schteebee) comes through second behind an on-form Pauwels. The result is the Czech’s best since injuring his back and knee during a training camp crash in Mallorca in early November. When he thinks about Stybar the rider, Nys says it’s like looking in the mirror: “I see myself 10 years ago because he has everything that a complete cyclocross rider must have: explosion, technical skills. The power must come with the years. He enjoys racing. You saw with the jumps – he likes racing. He enjoys the fun of the racing and that’s what you must have.”

Since tweaking his back — and bringing on a case of tendonitis in his left knee by favoring the injury on a chilly, five-hour training ride on the island — Stybar has struggled under pain and a constant inner dialogue.

“Sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t hurt anymore; if it just hurts in my mind,” he says over lunch. Much like Niels Albert’s rainbow year 12 months earlier, Stybar began his 2010 season by ticking off eight wins. His first loss came just five days before leaving for Mallorca, but at press time, Stybar hasn’t won since.

Back to battle

Sunday morning comes wet and cold. The temperature has dropped 15 degrees Celsius overnight and a thick layer of fog rests low in the forest near Gavere in East Flanders. The SuperPrestige Asper-Gavere has been contested since the genesis of the series in 1982 and will see more than 15,000 fans in its 27th edition. Sunday’s race is the 250th series event as well, but Stybar needs no extra motivation — he is locked tightly with his friend Nys for the overall standings.

In Essen, Stybar said, “Just to win Superprestige is always important. … You’re going to race just the same regardless and it’s a really tough race.”

Tough is right. The course in Gavere sits on a military post, and even for the team campers carrying 10-foot-high rider pictures and sponsor logos, the parking is a mess. Stybar arrives to the venue 4.5 hours before the start to give himself time in case there is trouble with the fatigue-wearing soldiers demanding parking certificates at the gate. But the Czech is a member of the sport’s biggest team, Telenet-Fidea, and slides easily through a line of aging men in tightly kept berets and orange jackets.

Ninety minutes before start time, a crowd of thirty or so fans presses around the side of the camper where head mechanic Gilbert De Laet prepares a stable of bikes, each emblazoned with a venue where Stybar won during the 2009-10 season. Inside, Štybie sits at a small table, his terrier Hoska in his lap, sharing a pot of spaghetti with freshly grated Parmesan and a half pint of olive oil. His physio, Wim, support staffer, Paula, and Ine are also there, and the mood is light. A stack of neatly folded rainbow skinsuits and jerseys lay on a sofa near the door while Paula washes dishes.

Stybar’s knee still isn’t 100 percent, but he shrugs it off: “It is what it is,” he says, holding a noodle for the dog to eat.

Nys was guilty of overtraining in his early years as an elite. In a career that has included nine Superprestige overall titles and a world championship, the Belgian champion has learned to back off the gas when his shape begins to peak.

“Stybar is training, training, training, and at the moment he is finished and you’ve got injuries also,” Nys says later. “It’s over the limit.”

During his streak, Stybar was training hard up to three days a week between back-to-back race days. “That’s the dangerous part, when you try to be better when you are good, you go over the top and you have a problem,” says Nys.

In Gavere, Nys takes the win, and Stybar finishes fourth. The sun hasn’t shown itself all day, but when it sets, temperatures drop near zero Celsius and Stybar returns quickly to the warmth of the camper. Wim hangs back to talk about his client’s health.

“In the race he said he had bad legs, but for him it’s normal. I hope he’s not bad with his head, but he will be okay,” Wim says. Stybar will return to Mallorca following the late-November Koksijde World Cup, where he finishes second to Albert, for two weeks of training, and is hopeful that his tendonitis will subside in the heat.

Back in Essen, Stybar talked about the meshing of confidence and reality, something he works on during weekly visits with a sports psychologist. “I am not really that confident actually. But during the race, when I can do a hard pace and see everyone suffering, it gives me more confidence,” he said. At the same time, Stybar knows that rainbow jerseys aren’t won on humility. “I’m never on the start line like, ‘Hey guys, you can beat me.’”

But beating Stybar is exactly what Nys and the rest of the world’s best will be attempting come January 30, when the world championship is held in Sankt Wendel, Germany.