Kevyn Ista... Who's that?
"He has crazy potential," says one of Kevyn Ista's sports directors at Agritubel. Of course, a DS will always praise his own riders. The 24 year old Ista from the Wallon region of Belgium gave a hint of his future potential this past weekend by placing second at the Omloop het Nieuwsblad. In his post-race comments Ista said, "I am predisposed toward pretty much all the classics. I have loved them since I was a junior." He admitted post-race that the crash in the final sprint helped his chances. In the normal way of things, he might have finished closer to fifth. Still a top five finish in a race like OHN is not exactly small frites.
Kevyn Ista started racing at fourteen after nine years playing football as a striker (attaquer). As a junior, the sprinter from Namur won two Belgian National Championships on the track. He rode the match sprint and the points race. As an U23, he rode well in the Ardennes and showed a talent for bunch sprinting. But his biggest result came at the U23 Ronde van Vlaanderen. Not surprisingly, he hopes to match that win at the elite edition of the Ronde before his career is up.
In 2005, he turned professional with RAGT-Semances. Ista admits that perhaps he turned professional too early. He was just 20 years old at the time. RAGT-Semances did not survive long enough for Ista to ride out his two year contract, and he returned to the amateur ranks for two years before signing with Agritubel for the 2008 season.
With his return to the pro ranks, Ista began to show his classics potential. In 2008, he finished second behind fellow Wallon Philippe Gilbert at the Belgian semi-classic GP Samyn. Not surprisingly, Ista's sports directors have compared him to Philippe Gilbert in terms of his speed and recovery. He also placed 8th at Paris-Bruxelles, and celebrated his first professional victory during the 2008 season with Agritubel. Smiles all around.
At the end of last season, Ista received an offer to ride for Silence-Lotto, but the Belgian chose to stay with Agritubel, signing a two year contract. At Agritubel, he has more space to choose his races and ride for results. He also praises the team environment as very supportive.
Ista is so far living up to Agritubel's confidence. In his second day of racing for the 2009 season, he won the third stage of the Tour Méditerranéen ahead of Jimmy Engoulvent of Besson Chaussures-Sojasun and José-Ivan Guttierez of Caisse d'Épargne. "This is extra!" he exclaimed after winning. Ista said that the early season win gave him confidence for the season. During the winter, the young Belgian spent time on the track at Ghent to work on his speed and strength. Ista won the sprint at Tour Med by a bike length.
During last year's Omloop het Volk, Ista rode in the lead group on the Eikenberg, but responded too late to Gilbert's race-winning attack. This year, he rode a quiet race, unbothered by the flurry of attacks that went up the road. The Agritubel rider expected a bunch sprint, and waited patiently. Ista was the only member of his Agritubel team to make the lead group at the finish, though French sprinter Romain Feillu won the field sprint a minute later. Ista describes preparing for Omloop het Nieuwsblad as a tricky business, because the order of the climbs changes every year. Then, "it is also necessary to become reacquainted with the cobbles." He must get used to the vibrations again, "feel the terrain and regulate the force on the pedals."
Ista's next big goal is to ride well at the Ronde von Vlaanderen, though the length of the Flemish monument may give him difficulties. He will ride Paris-Nice for training and hope for a result in the flatter stages. Ista can time trial, and so may also chase results at the shorter stage races like Critèrium International. But his heart remains with the classics. The Ardennes classics are on his race plan for the season. It's not yet clear that he has the climbing skills necessary for La Redoute or the Mur de Huy. Come July, Ista may ride the Tour de France for Agritubel. At the same time, he says he is not "obsessed" with the July race and would not mind waiting another year before riding the French grand tour.
A future "Monsieur Classiques"? Agritubel team manager Denis Leproux thinks so. "I was convinced that he could succeed in these types of races," said Leproux of Ista's success at Omloop het Nieuwsblad. "It is more Kevyn who needs to be aware he can win this type of race. I hope that this [success] will serve to make it click for him," added the DS. It's certainly too early to call Ista M. Classiques, but at 24 years old, he's already showing talent for the cobbled classics.
I decided not to steal any photos from his official web site. But there are some cute as a button amateur pics and a hottitude entry in the 2009 gallery. Head over and have a look.