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Stybar Q&A: On cobbles, racing with Boonen, and switching from ’cross

Zdenek Stybar, the current world champion in cyclocross, talks about his leap to the road, that day at Roubaix, and what may come next on the cobbles

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He sits on a couch, loose. His new, white Chuck Taylors look crisp, as does his immaculate poof of hair. He speaks animatedly, and uses his hands.

Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) loves talking about racing, loves talking about what makes him tick. His name is bandied about now in cycling as the next “it” rider. Or, we should say, the next star on the road. He’s already a cyclocross king, a three-time world champ, and the discipline’s current bearer of the rainbow stripes.

Stybar’s road palmares is decidedly thin, though that could change at a moment’s notice — or the amount of time it takes to lose Fabian Cancellara’s wheel over the cobbles after a freak collision.

Stybar won a stage at the 2013 Vuelta a España and the overall at the Eneco Tour. In 2012, he won stages at the Tour of Poland and at Four Days of Dunkirk. Back in 2006, he won two stages at smaller races.

Of course these results don’t mention that he could have won Paris-Roubaix last year without that odd, imperfectly timed collision with a photographer. But this is road racing. Lots of things could happen, right?

Stybar finished sixth that day in northern France, and seventh at last month’s Milano-Sanremo, picking up where he left off after the “Queen of the Classics” a year ago. He is part of the powerhouse Omega Pharma team, which can free him up a bit, but also serves as a tether to Tom Boonen, if the Belgian king is feeling good. Stybar sat down with Velo and the U.K.-based Cycling Weekly earlier this season in the Middle East.

VN/CW: What’s it like to swap over from cyclocross so quickly?
Zdenek Stybar: It’s not too difficult because I was only training for the road, for the road season, so for the worlds I didn’t change anything. Of course I did some intervals, but the same as I would do for the road. I didn’t change anything. Then, a few days before the worlds, I did some training over there on the circuit, and then two days after the worlds I went to do a recon for the Tour of Flanders.

VN/CW: Will you race in the world champion jersey a fair amount next season?
ZS: I really don’t know … because I have, like, seven races of cyclocross and I think it is really good training and preparation for the road. I did the races between Christmas and the New Year period, so I already had some base training. I did some long-distance rides and then I did intervals with the cyclocross [bike]. I did the same last year but not the worlds. I wanted to see how I would feel, how the condition and the shape would be. And then I will see what races I will do next year. It has to suit everything. It can’t be, “OK, I’m going to just show the jersey and that’s it.” If I will go there, I want to make sure I’m not going to be dropped and riding in 10-15 position, because then it is no fun.

VN/CW: What are some of the differences you notice between road and cyclocross racing?
ZS: When you are riding a climb, you just go at one steady pace and then you die only one time, or maybe two times, on the climb. You just go until you can’t. In cyclocross, you go, and then you explode, and then you somehow recover again during the race because you have the turns so you can breathe a little bit and then you can go again, so during a race you can die 10 times. … So I think it’s also good for the road and for the classics, like the brain remembers that. You have to train it and on the road it is difficult to train it. Like for example, for the classics, it’s really hard before the climbs, then it’s hard on the climb, and then above the climb again, so for each climb, you need like three good accelerations. That is pretty similar to the ’cross, and that is my idea why I wanted to do cyclocross races.

VN/CW: How often do you think about Roubaix from last season?
ZS: Um … [pauses, laughs] … I can’t really say like I go to sleep every night with the idea of what I could reach there if I didn’t have the crash. I really think more about the future. I don’t really turn back actually a lot behind me. I already forgot about the worlds. … I don’t really look behind, always more in front, so I don’t really think too much about Roubaix anymore. I think about Roubaix, but for next year.

VN/CW: Well, how about this year then?
ZS: Just that I have to get to the same place, but without a crash!

VN/CW: Do you think it’s to your advantage to ride for such a strong team, or do you think it may hold you back?
ZS: Absolutely for me I think that’s one of the most important things of all, actually, that I still have the guys with experience. Because I have done [the classics] only once, all those races. It’s my dream, it’s my big goal. So Roubaix, last year I did only a recon of 70 kilometers and all the other parts I had only seen on a movie. That was all that I knew about the race. So it was, “OK, let’s see how it will go, how the race will develop.” Now as fit as Tom [Boonen] is right now, I think it will be really nice to race in this team and to learn from those guys and to be there.

VN/CW: So it’s good to be in the shadows, then?
ZS: I think you know, it’s a big advantage. I really would love to help Tom, that he wins all those classics races. Because for me it is a big advantage for the future. Of course I would like to win Roubaix or Flanders and every classic this year, but we have one leader and we really go for the leader. I have of course my ambitions, but first it’s Tom. He is the absolute leader, and I’m really looking forward to learning from him in those races.

VN/CW: Do you think there’s more to come from you? You seem to climb pretty well. Any future GC ambitions?
ZS: No … then I really have to focus for it. I am now 28 so I also didn’t start with the road when I was 18. I don’t have the time anymore to say, like, “OK, now I go start for preparation just with riding on the long climbs to try to become a climber,” or to do different kinds of classics. I think I don’t have a place for it anymore, or even time. It’s just not possible, because if I want to be good in the classics, which is my dream, then I really have to train only for the classics. It takes really a lot of time to develop as a rider to some point where you can ride with one of the best riders. It’s like, you really have to train a lot and focus on that kind of work.

VN/CW: How’d you start racing bikes?
ZS: When I was three years old, really. I did my first race, I think in May ’89, I think it was 16th May 1989. I was only three-and-a-half years old. From then on I was racing only BMX, but it is just playing, but when I was seven I was world champion on BMX and then it went on. It also helped me a lot actually, because it always [opens] doors. … In the Czech Republic, there is not really a good base, and never was, so it was difficult to get in some good team and move on.

VN/CW: Did you win that first race?
ZS: No, because I was the youngest rider. I think they were five or six and I was three-and-a-half. I have pictures at home somewhere.

VN/CW: If you weren’t a bike rider, what would you have been?
ZS: Then I think I’d study and probably I would go somewhere abroad to try my luck somewhere else. In Czech it was always difficult, now I think it is improving, but I think I would have gone to some other country to start to work there or go somewhere through studies.

VN/CW: How is it training in the Czech Republic? Good roads and riding?
ZS: For me it’s a little bit cycling paradise over there. Like, since two years ago, they really work hard on the roads in my region, and it’s like everywhere, brand new roads, it’s pretty hilly. It’s steep climbs between one to three kilometers, and when I go a little bit far, like 80K, then there are really climbs between four to 10 kilometers. It’s really nice. I can train there for everything. One side it’s really flat, but also there’s no traffic at all. … It’s beautiful. It’s everything in nature. It’s really like you’re just on your own.

VN/CW: What’s more fun, cyclocross or road?
ZS: It’s all fun. It’s our job. Cycling and the road cycling, cyclocross, it’s two different worlds. You can’t really compare it, actually, because [’cross] … it’s a very small family. And [road] is like really huge.

VN/CW: Was it hard to make the call to switch over?
ZS: It’s very difficult to make the decision. You need to get the opportunity first to change. And also when I was continuing with cyclocross, I was sure I was going to win around at least 10 races a year. That I can probably win … maybe win a few world championships. And that I left, because I thought, “OK, I want more.” Or not really more, but I still have some other goals. And if I didn’t do it two years ago … then I couldn’t do it anymore. Because then it would have been too late. So it was really like five minutes before 12, otherwise it will be too late already.

VN/CW: Do you worry about regret?
ZS: Absolutely. It was always like that a little bit. I really want to try and really go for it. I was winning in cyclocross. Making also pretty good money. So then it’s like, you leave something where you are good in, and you don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know what it will be, and how far you will get. You have to decide.

VN/CW: That first season, did you have doubts? Worries?
ZS: No, actually. The first race when I started was Four Days of Dunkirk, and I was third there. And then a year after I was second there. The second year I won the stage in the Tour of Poland, and then this year was again a little bit more. So I think I didn’t make a mistake. Maybe now I won the worlds again. It’s like, I see also that I can always turn back.

VN/CW: If you had to pick one race to ever win, what would it be?
ZS: The Tour of Flanders. Because that’s the race why I actually [moved to] road. That race is something, it’s really stimulating, that race. Also because when I was doing the cyclocross races, and then there always came the Tour of Flanders fever in Belgium. And then everything is turning about the Tour of Flanders. It made me crazy about the race. Like you buy newspapers and you get a bidon with it, with the map, all the climbs. You go to the bakery, you have those little cakes with just some signs of Tour of Flanders. They make special beer for Tour of Flanders, special editions, so it’s always around. It’s not only about the race, like how beautiful a race it is, how difficult it is. It’s all around it. Last year, when I was in Brugge, on the stage there, looking around at, I don’t know, 10,000 people, it’s like, “Wow.” Those are the moments you say, “OK, that’s something special that you don’t have at any other race.”

It’s an early morning, you know? In Belgium it’s really just all about cycling. It’s like everyone lives [for] it, and whoever talks with you about cycling has a clue about cycling. A few years ago when I spoke with someone about cycling in the Czech Republic, they just had no clue about it. But that has also improved. We’ve come a long way. Also because they have good websites, thanks to you guys. It’s everything moving faster.

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