By John Wilcockson
When it’s a hard day in the Tour of Flanders, the home riders nearly always come out on top. And Sunday’s 92nd edition of the gnarly Belgian classic was one of the hardest, with hail showers, even some snow, and long bouts of heavy rain blasting the riders through the middle part of the 264km race, which started and ended in spring sunshine. So it was fitting that the reigning champion of Belgium, Stijn Devolder of Quick Step-Innergetic, emerged with a gutsy solo triumph.
Devolder, 28, earned his victory the hard way by riding the last 26km alone, never more than a half-minute ahead of his pursuers. His final margin was 15 seconds from fellow Belgian Nick Nuyens of Cofidis, who beat Spain’s Juan Antonio Flecha of Rabobank for second place, while defending champion Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) just took fourth place in a 21-man sprint from an impressive George Hincapie (Team High Road).
But what gave Devolder the opportunity to win was the presence behind him of his team leader Tom Boonen, who was on superb form. The two-time Flanders winner simply rode everyone off of his wheel, except Devolder and Rabobank’s Juan Antonio Flecha, on the day’s steepest, most challenging climb, the slippery cobblestone Koppenberg. But with 70km still to go, it was too early for Boonen to shoot for home.
Instead, Boonen’s acceleration made everyone aware of his power, and discouraged rivals like Ballan and CSC’s Fabian Cancellara from even attempting to make a break with him. They also knew that if Devolder was caught then Boonen had the strength to counterattack and win the race himself.
Conforming that opinion was Boonen’s teammate. “Everybody’s scared of him,” Devolder said. “So when I attacked it was perfect for Tom, because it was easier for him in the group behind.”
It was certainly easy for Boonen to sit on the chasers’ wheels, and had Devolder faltered it would no doubt have been easy for Boonen to counterattack and win the race for a third time. But Devolder, who had never came close to winning a classic in his first seven years of pro racing, did not falter on Sunday.
After he made his winning move just before the Elkenmolen climb, Devolder was chased by four riders — Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) and Janek Tombak (Mitsubishi-Jartazi) — but they got no closer than 12 seconds, and were swept up by a 30-strong chase group just before the second-to-last hill, the infamous Mur de Grammont.
Devolder took his maximum lead of 32 seconds as he reached the cobbled, crowd-packed streets of Grammont (known as Geraardsbergen in Flemish). He slogged up the climb, sitting down to maintain his grip on the rain-slick cobblestones, while Rabobank’s Flecha shot from the pack in a bid to catch him.
But Boonen cruised up to the Spanish rider by the summit, while Ballan and Nuyens were able to join him and Flecha on the sharp descent. Devolder’s lead was then 17 seconds with 14km left to race.
Another 20 riders were able to chase back before the final climb, the Bosberg, which is also cobbled, and in the past has often seen breakaway riders crack. But not Devolder. At the top, he was still 16 seconds clear of the impressive Dutch talent, 23-year-old Sebastian Langeveld of Rabobank, who was desperately chasing the leader.
Langeveld’s abortive effort opened the way for his teammate Flecha to launch another pursuit with 5km to go; and the gap did narrow when Flecha was joined by Nuyens as they raced into a head wind. But still Devolder held strong.
“After the Bosberg I was afraid,” Devolder admitted. “I knew there was a possibility that they could catch me back. But I had good legs, and so I made it to the finish. The most beautiful moment is to reach the finish alone before so many people.”
Now that he has won one classic — and the Tour of Flanders is the best one to win for any Belgian — Devolder will probably go on to win many more.
Devolder’s steady progress
“This is my dream race,” Devolder said in his post-race press conference. And so it should be. He was born in Kortrijk, which this year was on the race route, 65km out of the start in historic Bruges. And ever since he took up bike riding his favorite training terrain has been on the byways of the Flemish Ardennes where all 17 hills on this intricate course are located.
Despite it being his dream race, Devolder hasn’t had an easy path to this breakthrough success. He’s nothing like the super-talented Boonen, who has always picked up big wins because of his signature sprinting power.
Devolder has had to work harder to succeed. He started his pro career with two seasons on the regional Vlaanderen-T Interim squad before transferring to U.S. Postal Service, which became Discovery Channel in 2005.
In his four years with the American squad, Devolder was well regarded as a time trialist and a stage-race rider, not as a classics man. He won the 2005 Three Days of De Panne and a TT stage of the 2006 Four Days of Dunkirk. And he broke out last year with six wins, including the Tour of Austria and a TT stage at De Panne. But his biggest success came in his national championship in Ronse, where, on a hilly circuit, he soled to a memorable victory, holding off a 20-strong chase group by 16 seconds. Boonen was the runner-up.
When Discovery disbanded last fall, it was only natural that Devolder would be snapped up by wily Quick Step team manager Patrick Lefévère — who was smiling contentedly in the winner’s press conference on Sunday.
Devolder began his 2008 season with a TT win and the overall title at Portugal’s Tour of the Algarve, but he didn’t do great in the Belgian semi-classics prior to Flanders. He was 15th at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and ninth at the GP E3, after taking a disappointing 10th on the TT stage at Tirreno Adriatico.
But after Sunday’s amazing win, Devolder will be looked at in a different light.
The key moves
Devolder’s longtime teammate George Hincapie was full of admiration for his Belgian friend. And it was ironic that the former Discovery Channel/U.S. Postal classics leader played a big role in Devolder’s success.
After the day’s early break of four (Tombak, Bouygues Telecom’s Vincent Jérôme, Topsport’s Sven Renders and Skil-Shimano’s Tom Veelers) was caught just before the critical climb of the Old Kwaremont, with 85km to go, Hincapie was never far from the front.
When Devolder made his initial attack with Langeveld and Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) on the short Leberg climb 48km from the finish, Hincapie bridged up with Flecha and CSC’s Karsten Kroon. “I had good legs,” Hincapie said, “but I wasn’t great on the hills.”
That move was neutralized when Boonen considered it too dangerous, and bridged up with a half-dozen others on the following climb, the wall-like Berendries. Langeveld broke out again on the fast descent, and he was again in the mix with Devolder and Kroon as the race emerged from rain into sunshine with 40km to go. Hincapie again bridged, this time alone, followed by Ballan.
It looked as though the resultant five-man attack was going to succeed, because the gap was soon 25 seconds; but there were a couple of things working against it. The first was Devolder: “I spoke to George and I told him I couldn’t ride because Tom Boonen was in the group behind.” The second reason was a combined effort by the Liquigas and Cofidis teams to close down the break 10km before the Mur de Grammont.
It was right then, as Hincapie, Ballan, Kroon and Langeveld eased off the throttle, that Devolder bolted. At first, it looked like it was just another thrust to soften up Quick Step’s competition before Boonen countered on the Mur. It probably was intended that way. Instead, Devolder just kept rolling.
1. Stijn Devolder (B), Quick Step, at 6:24:02 (41.26kph),
2. Nick Nuyens (B), Cofidis, at 0:15
3. Juan Antonio Flecha Giannoni (Sp), Rabobank, at 0:15
4. Alessandro Ballan (I), Lampre-Fondital, at 0:21
5. George Hincapie (USA), High Road, at 0:21
6. Filippo Pozzato (I), Liquigas, at 0:21
7. Kurt-Asle Arvesen (N), CSC, at 0:21
8. Greg Van Avermaet (B), Silence-Lotto, at 0:21
9. Simon Spilak (Slo), Lampre-Fondital, at 0:21
10. Arnaud Labbe (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 0:21
11. Bernhard Eisel (A), High Road, at 0:21
12. Martijn Maaskant (Nl), Slipstream, at 0:21
13. Gregory Rast (Swi), Astana, at 0:21
14. Niki Terpstra (Nl), Milram, at 0:21
15. Philippe Gilbert (B), Francaise des Jeux, at 0:21
16. Dmitriy Muravyev (Kaz), Astana, at 0:21
17. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step, at 0:21
18. Sebastiaan Langeveld (Nl), Rabobank, at 0:21
19. Leif Hoste (B), Silence-Lotto, at 0:21
20. Andreas Klier (G), High Road, at 0:21
21. Maarten Tjallingii (Nl), Silence-Lotto, at 0:21
22. Martin Elmiger (Swi), Ag2r, at 0:21
23. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), CSC, at 0:21
24. Carlos Barredo Llamazales (Sp), Quick Step, at 0:21
25. Janek Tombak (Est), Mitsubishi-Jartazi, at 0:25
26. Frederic Guesdon (F), Francaise des Jeux, at 0:43
27. Thor Hushovd (N), Credit Agricole, at 3:18
28. Kurt Hovelynck (B), Topsport Vlaanderen, at 3:18
29. Pedro Horrillo Munoz (Sp), Rabobank, at 3:18
30. Sylvain Chavanel (F), Cofidis, at 3:18
31. Rik Verbrugghe (B), Cofidis, at 3:18
32. Roger Hammond (GB), High Road, at 3:18
33. Christophe Mengin (F), Francaise des Jeux, at 3:18
34. Allan Davis (Aus), Mitsubishi-Jartazi, at 3:18
35. Bert De Waele (B), Landbouwkrediet-Tonissteiner, at 3:18
36. Serguei Ivanov (Rus), Astana, at 3:18
37. Manuel Quinziato (I), Liquigas, at 3:18
38. Marco Marcato (I), Cycle Collstrop, at 3:18
39. Bram Tankink (Nl), Rabobank, at 3:18
40. Oscar Freire Gomez (Sp), Rabobank, at 3:18
41. Karsten Kroon (Nl), CSC, at 3:29
42. David Kopp (G), Cycle Collstrop, at 9:14
43. Magnus Backstedt (Swe), Slipstream, at 9:14
44. Peter Wrolich (A), Gerolsteiner, at 9:14
45. Kevin De Weert (B), Cofidis, at 9:14
46. Frederik Willems (B), Liquigas, at 9:14
47. Roy Sentjens (B), Silence-Lotto, at 9:14
48. Vicente Reynes Mimo (Sp), High Road, at 9:14
49. Michal Golas (Pol), Cycle Collstrop, at 9:14
50. Juan Jose Oroz Ugalde (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 9:14
51. Bastian Giling (Nl), Cycle Collstrop, at 9:14
52. Floris Goesinnen (Nl), Skil-Shimano, at 9:14
53. Ralf Grabsch (G), Milram, at 9:14
54. Tyler Farrar (USA), Slipstream, at 9:14
55. Frank Hoj (Dk), Cofidis, at 9:14
56. Staf Scheirlinckx (B), Cofidis, at 9:14
57. Paolo Longo Borghini (I), Barloworld, at 9:14
58. Matti Breschel (Dk), CSC, at 9:14
59. Guennadi Mikhailov (Rus), Mitsubishi-Jartazi, at 9:14
60. Matteo Tosatto (I), Quick Step, at 9:14
61. Gert Steegmans (B), Quick Step, at 9:14
62. Fabio Baldato (I), Lampre-Fondital, at 10:55
63. Baden Cooke (Aus), Barloworld, at 14:55
64. Bert Grabsch (G), High Road, at 15:14
65. Jose Vicente Garcia Acosta (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, at 17:35
66. Ermanno Capelli (I), Saunier Duval-Scott, at 17:35
67. Aleksandr Kuchynski (Blr), Liquigas, at 17:35
68. Erik Zabel (G), Milram, at 17:35
69. Jan Kuyckx (B), Landbouwkrediet-Tonissteiner, at 17:35
70. Marcel Sieberg (G), High Road, at 17:35
71. Geert Verheyen (B), Mitsubishi-Jartazi, at 17:35
72. Christian Knees (G), Milram, at 17:35
73. Ian Stannard (GB), Landbouwkrediet-Tonissteiner, at 17:35
74. Imanol Erviti Ollo (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, at 17:35
75. Stijn Vandenbergh (B), Ag2r, at 17:35
76. Jesus Del Nero Montes, at 17:35
77. Rene Haselbacher (A), Astana, at 17:35
78. Laszlo Bodrogi (Hun), Credit Agricole, at 17:35
79. Luciano Andre Pagliarini Mendonca (Bra), Saunier Duval-Scott, at 17:35
80. Mathieu Drujon (F), Caisse d’Epargne, at 17:35
81. Preben Van Hecke (B), Topsport Vlaanderen, at 17:35
82. Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Slipstream, at 17:35
83. Patrick Calcagni (Swi), Barloworld, at 17:35
84. Paolo Fornaciari (I), Lampre-Fondital, at 17:35
85. Marco Bandiera (I), Lampre-Fondital, at 17:35
86. Marcus Ljungqvist (Swe), CSC, at 17:35
87. Markel Irizar Aranburu (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 17:35
88. Yoann Offredo (F), Francaise des Jeux, at 17:35
89. Mirko Selvaggi (I), Cycle Collstrop, at 17:35
90. Murilo Fischer (Bra), Liquigas, at 17:35
91. Heinrich Haussler (G), Gerolsteiner, at 17:35
92. Sven Krauss (G), Gerolsteiner, at 17:35
93. Fabio Sabatini (I), Milram, at 17:35
94. Alexandre Pichot (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 17:35
95. Mathieu Ladagnous (F), Francaise des Jeux, at 17:35
96. Mickael Delage (F), Francaise des Jeux, at 17:35
97. Wim De Vocht (B), Silence-Lotto, at 17:35
98. Wim Vansevenant (B), Silence-Lotto, at 17:35
99. Sebastien Minard (F), Cofidis, at 17:35
100. Maarten Wynants (B), Quick Step, at 17:35
101. Wilfried Cretskens (B), Quick Step, at 17:35
200 starters, 101 finishers