Czech veteran Zdeněk Štybar rolled back the years with a ride into 18th-place Sunday that proved that while form is temporary, class is enduring.
Having scored world titles in 2010, 2011, and 2014, Štybar parachuted into this weekend’s worlds as part of a late YOLO decision to compete. Having not raced through the ‘cross winter to date, the 35-year-old rode on good memories and positive vibes on the sandy Ostende course.
“The world championships are special to me. I’ve got fond memories to it,” he said after finishing some six minutes down on winner van der Poel. “This week many memories were coming back. It’s a pity that I lost my great record here – but it will not be the last ’cross world championships.”
Štybar had explained that his late decision to race came as a result of both his enduring love of the discipline and the start of his road season being delayed due to COVID cancelations. He wasn’t backing himself for a fourth gold medal – he wanted a trip down memory lane and a solid shred in the Ostende sand.
“The world championships will always have a special feeling, as it is where I have started my career and I have my special victories,” he said last week. “I will go flat out to push myself and try to get the best result possible.”
With no rankings from preceding races to his name, Štybar started from the back of the start grid and ripped off to a fast start, only to lose momentum as riders bottlenecked in front of him on one of the bridges that scattered the course.
From there, the Deceuninck-Quick-Step stalwart began a long lonely time trial through the pack, with his finish in the top half of the field proving that natural talent and years of experience can overcome training and tune-up races.
“I was suffering,” he said afterward. “Racing here is not to be compared with training. Riding through the sand and then having to climb up that bridge is impossible to simulate in training.”
It’s now back to road mode for Štybar as he closes down on his second passion: the spring classics.
After a turn at the Clásica de Almería mid-February, the Czech will again be hunting down van Aert and van der Poel when the trio lock horns at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and a number of other top Flanders races.
Štybar will be up against it when facing down the two young stars that are following in his cross-discipline footsteps, and he knows it.
“Mathieu and Wout are in a league of their own,” he said. “Nobody can follow them on the road, let alone in cyclocross.”