Critics be damned — Jasper Stuyven still considers the Leuven world championships and the Belgian national team’s near-miss as one of the personal highlights of his career.
Despite sometimes heavy post-race criticism about Belgian tactics, Stuyven said he doesn’t feel overly bitter about finishing fourth and just missing a medal on a day when many expected Belgium to carry home the rainbow jersey.
“Knowing how the race was raced, I don’t have any regrets,” Stuyven said in a recent media call. “I raced one of the best days of my career.”
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While the experience of racing on home roads was good enough for him — Stuyven was raised in and calls Leuven home — the performance of the Belgian national team continues to rattle across the Belgian fanbase and media.
Many top-10 lists coming out at in end-of-year stories are ranking the world championships, and what many called a tactical miscue by the Belgian national team, as one of the top stories of 2021.
Jasper Stuyven defends Belgium’s worlds tactics
Stuyven shrugged off criticism from arm-chair quarterbacks, and insisted the Belgian team did the best it could under the circumstances.
“I think Julian was on a very good day, and the strongest rider won,” Stuyven said during a recent team camp in Spain.
Belgium’s tactics were built around Wout van Aert, but the typically reliable all-rounder went flat in the closing, decisive laps.
With Remco Evenepoel already burning his matches in an earlier move — a tactic that continues to boil across Belgian media — it fell to Stuyven to race for home glory.
When eventual winner Julian Alaphilippe pounced in the closing laps to win with a thrilling solo attack, Stuyven had the legs to join a four-rider chase group that also included American Neilson Powless, whose fifth place was the best U.S. elite men’s worlds result in nearly two decades, and eventual medalists Dylan van Baarle and Michael Valgren.
While he insisted he’s not making excuses, Stuyven said his extra efforts pulling for van Aert, who eventually waved him off, might have cost him a podium spot in the final four-up sprint for two medals.
“In theory, I am the fastest, but it was such a hard, hard day,” Stuyven said. “If you look at how the race was raced, then you put that next to the efforts I had to do to close down gaps even in the first lap in the city final, I did a lot of efforts there.
“Then it’s just about being the freshest at the finish line,” he said. “You could see [the others] had an easy way into Leuven. I am not going to say that was the only reason, but that half-wheel could be the difference for me to make the medal or not. They really didn’t have to work or close down gaps. If you look at how they raced in the final, it’s those little [efforts] that made the difference.”
Racing in front of one million of his best friends
Stuyven said despite the controversial finale, racing the world championships on home roads in front of an estimated one million fans will rank as one of his personal highlights.
And that’s saying something for the rider who stunned the favorites to win Milano-Sanremo in a daring raid to win his first career monument in March.
“For me personally, I looked back to the [worlds] as one of the best days in my life because I was racing in my hometown,” Stuyven said. “There was so many friends and family on the road, and I had goosebumps a lot of times during the race. I prefer to remember the positive vibes and amazing experience that I probably will never have again.”
Back in September, COVID-19 seemed to be easing its grip on Europe.
Health restrictions were eased, and after more than a year of watching their heroes race on TV, Belgian fans turned out en masse to watch the worlds in person.
An estimated one million fans turned up to witness the elite men’s road race.
For Stuyven, who also owns and runs a chocolate shop in Leuven, racing on home roads was a once in a lifetime experience, and he wanted to soak it up as best he could.
He also knew he had a job to do.
“I tried to block it out,” he said of the massive crowds. “I told myself that I would maybe the first or second laps, so I could I take it in, and look for the people I know at the side of the road, so that I would be able to focus on the racing in the final. That ‘s how it worked out.”
Medal or not, the worlds for Stuyven were one to remember and relish.