The powerhouse Belgian cyclocross squad Telenet-Fidea lost two of its top riders of a year ago in Zdenek Stybar and Kevin Pauwels this offseason. Two of the team’s remaining riders, including former world champion Bart Wellens, say the squad must revisit its expectations and target quality wins over the quantity it has enjoyed in recent seasons.
Two-time elite world champion Wellens and 2011 Kasteelcross Zonnebeke winner Rob Peeters will open the SuperPrestige series Sunday in Ruddervoorde, Belgium, alongside Tom Meeusen and Joeri Adams. The squad, for years the strongest top-to-bottom of the big-time European ’cross teams, enters the 2011 season shorthanded. The four riders are three fewer than a season ago, but it is the quality more than the quantity of the missing riders that will most impact Telenet. Wellens said the offseason defection of upstart Kevin Pauwels to Sunweb-Revor was particularly tough for the team.
“Especially because (Zdenek) Stybar was going. Our team is 22 riders, but only four pro riders,” Wellens told VeloNews. “For myself, I’m 33 and I try to beat them all, but it’s really hard to lose Pauwels on our team. That’s reality and all the teams want the good riders. To lose Stybar, we knew he was going, but losing Pauwels is very hard.”
Wellens is searching for the form that delivered him to back-to-back world titles in 2003 and 2004. He missed half of the 2009 season with cytomegalovirus and steadily built back to form last season, eventually making the Belgian selection for worlds and finishing eighth, 2:01 behind Stybar.
Back-to-back world champion Stybar turned pro with Fidea in 2007 and racked up more than 25 wins with the team, as well as the World Cup and SuperPrestige overall titles in 2009-10. He announced before this year’s world championships that he would move to Quick Step to explore a road career. The Czech, who lives in Essen, Belgium, on the Dutch border, began negotiating with top-tier road teams early in 2010 and Telenet management was prepared for his departure.
Kevin Pauwels, on the other hand, was a surprise defection to a Sunweb squad that is rebuilding after an ultimately disappointing 2010-11 campaign. Pauwels, 27, delivered on his long-held promise last year, winning first at the GvA Trofee GP Hasselt.
Wellens said he expected Pauwels to be the rider of the year.
“I think Kevin Pauwels will make a strong season,” Wellens told VeloNews. “He looked good this summer in the races on the road and the mountain bike. I think he’s going to be the man of the season.”
After his runner-up finish in last month’s CrossVegas, Peeters said the departure of the team’s top two riders of a year ago changed the core of Telenet’s expectations heading into the season. Stybar could be counted on for regular wins in the World Cup and Belgian series. Now the team must temper their expectations and aim for quality wins.
“It was not very bad that we lose Stybie when we could hold Pauwels. Now we must do it with the team we have. We do have a good team and we showed it today, but it’s just different. It will not be as many victories as last year,” Peeters told VeloNews.
“We know in the team what riders we have and we know we’re not going to have 100 victories, but we are very happy when we have the best victories.
“We know what kind of team we have now and the riders we have, and the team knows that. I think they are very happy with (CrossVegas) to have one podium already and hopefully we can do the whole season like this and they can be smiling again.”
The 30th SuperPrestige veldrijden opens Sunday in Ruddervoorde, in northwest Belgium, and concludes on February 11 in Middelkerke.