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HOOGERHEIDE, Netherlands (VN) — On Saturday afternoon he stood, mud-spattered, on the sidewalk a couple of blocks up the road from the world championship circuit in Hoogerheide. A mechanic scrubbed his bike, and tried — futilely, to comic effect — to brush the mud from his back and legs before he threw a leg over his bike to cycle the 15 kilometers home to Essen, just across the border in Belgium.
This is Zdenek Stybar, a man who, on that breezy Saturday afternoon, talked about a world championships in the same offhand manner most riders would talk about a particularly difficult training ride.
“Actually I decided (to race) because I went on Thursday to train in the track and I just felt so good on the bike, on my Specialized,” he said then. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’m sitting really good, I feel comfortable, so why not?’ I just accepted the challenge, and especially now when it’s much more technical I really go for it and I’m going to try my best.”
The next day, he stood on the top step of the podium, a three-time world champion after beating Sven Nys, the undisputed best in the world — until Sunday. Not since the 2011 championship in Sankt-Wendel, a race that featured the very same podium as Sunday’s contest, have fans witnessed a man-to-man battle on the scale of the showdown between Stybar and Nys in Hoogerheide.
On Tuesday, the new cyclocross world champion heads to the cobbled climbs of the Flemish Ardennes: recon for the Tour of Flanders. For all but one rider on the course on Sunday, the worlds were the season’s biggest race. For Stybar, it was just more training. The road is calling.
The Czech Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider walked away from an offer of a half-million euros per year from the Telenet-Fidea cyclocross team earlier this season, confident in his burgeoning road career.
He has reason to be so. In 2013 Stybar won the Eneco Tour, and the seventh stage of the Vuelta a España. He was on course for the podium at Paris-Roubaix before a before a collision with a spectator sent him careening across the cobbled Carrefour de l’Arbre, barely avoiding a disastrous crash. He still finished sixth.
But his success on the road may have come at the expense of his popularity in Belgium. Stybar, once regarded as nearly an honorary Belgian, was booed as he arrived first on the finish line in Hoogerheide. He told reporters after the race that a few fans along the course had even emptied their beers on him.
Stybar, ever gracious, chalked it up to a few unruly fans.
“You know, on one side I really understand the reactions of the supporters, maybe it’s due to alcohol, maybe it’s due to the disappointment that a (non-Belgian) rider won,” he said. “I can accept it that in cyclocross it was always there, and it will always be there that some supporters will act like that.
“I think Sven had also already a few liters of beer tossed on him. It’s probably the biggest amount of alcohol he’s had in his whole life. It’s just maybe part of the cyclocross and part of the crowd. From 50,000 people it’s not difficult to find a few crazy drunk supporters who will just throw the beer. I can live with that.”
What may be harder to live with, now that he once again wears the world champion’s rainbow stripes, are the persistent questions about his absence from cyclocross, a sport that Stybar has more than once acknowledged as a first love.
Even Nys, clearly the strongest of the day — save for Stybar — said his presence elevated both the day and the sport.
“If I won today, it’s better to win from a big champion, and if I lose today, it’s better to lose to a big champion,” said Nys. “For me it’s better to have a race like this. (Stybar) is three times world champion. He’s not only a road racer. He has all the skills to race on the highest level after just six or seven races. For me it’s better that Stybar is here, even when I’m second.”
But even as Nys told reporters he regretted the decision by one of his greatest rivals to race on the road, he could understand why a rider as talented as Stybar would want to test himself in the biggest one-day road races in the world.
“For us, for cyclocross overall, it should be really good that a Czech rider, Stybar, a big champion, is doing all the races,” said Nys. “But that’s something he’s chosen, and I can imagine he also wants to win a classic on the road. And when he wins a race like that, I’m going to say, ‘Damn! I now understand why I’m second in the world championships in Hoogerheide.’”
Nys’ affirmation may help to smooth some ruffled feathers in Belgian cyclocross fandom, but Stybar will continue to live with the pressure of a life split between two worlds.
Will he, like women’s world champion, Marianne Vos, continue to focus primarily on his road career, returning to cyclocross only for a few weeks at midwinter? Will he walk away entirely, as did one-time champion Lars Boom? Stybar told reporters in Hoogerheide to ask him again in September, saying he had to see how another season on the road played out, and tackle the “biggest change of my life” (marriage).
But, he said, he thought that perhaps there had been too much emphasis on the presence or absence of the rainbow jersey — won in a single race — on any given day in a season that’s still a spring, summer, and, he hoped, a successful road season away.
“I think that the color of the jersey is not really important because the supporters and the crowd and the TV viewers, it will never change,” he said. “It will always stay the same. Here in Belgium it is sport number one and it doesn’t matter if the world champion is there or not. They will still love the sport, the people. It won’t change anything.
“They don’t watch the race because there’s the world champion or the Belgian champion. They watch because it’s exciting. They can have a cup of tea and watch with the whole family. I don’t think it’s important if there’s a white jersey riding around.”