By John Wilcockson
When Stijn Devolder was asked Sunday what was different about his second Tour of Flanders victory in two years, he was close to tears. “A friend of mine died at the Tour of Qatar in February, and I promised to remember him the first time I won a race this year,” Devolder said. He was talking about Frederiek Nolf, the Topsport Vlaanderen team rider who died in his sleep one week short of his 22nd birthday.
“It was an emotional moment,” Devolder continued, describing his feelings as he coasted across the finish line, pointing with both index fingers toward the sky. It was the same gesture made by Lance Armstrong 14 years ago when he dedicated his Tour de France stage victory at Limoges to his Motorola teammate Fabio Casartelli, who died in a race accident a few days before. And just like Armstrong, Devolder did not celebrate in the same exuberant manner as he did in 2008.
“It was special last year to win in the national championship jersey,” he said, “That was my first time … after many years of having bad luck in this race.”
Devolder had no bad luck on Sunday, in the 93rd edition of De Ronde van Vlaanderen. “He was simply the strongest today,” said Columbia-Highroad’s George Hincapie, who said he wasn’t on a good day, but he was sprinting for third place, a minute behind Devolder.
“I was hoping to make the podium,” Hincapie told VeloNews, “but I got caught in that crash with 200 meters to go.” Hincapie ran out of space when he was coming though on the left of the other sprinters; but Cervélo TestTeam’s Thor Hushovd rode into the curb and fell heavily. The big Norwegian, who had just recovered from breaking two ribs at February’s Tour of California, was taken to the hospital in Aalst, where he was due to get an X-ray on his left wrist.
As it happened, Hushovd wasn’t convinced that his sprinting form was good enough to get a podium spot, so with a kilometer to go he told his German/Australian teammate Heinrich Haussler — who speaks English with a broad Aussie accent — to attack. The plan worked out well for Cervélo, the surprise team of the early season, because Haussler jumped clear so fast that he gained a good 50 meters and easily took second place — only two weeks after he was runner-up to Mark Cavendish at Milan-San Remo.
But this Sunday in Flanders belonged to Devolder and his devastatingly strong Quick Step squad.
The Boonen factor
It is no secret that Devolder, 29, owes his two Flanders titles to joining Tom Boonen’s Quick Step team last year. As in 2008, two-time winner Boonen was heavily marked, a fact that allowed his strongest teammates, Devolder and Sylvain Chavanel, to instigate breakaways and control the race over the Belgian classic’s crucial final two hours.
Quick Step first took charge when the race hit several sections of Paris-Roubaix-type cobblestones midway through the 261.5km race to keep their rivals under control before a vital trio of cobbled climbs: the Old Kwaremont, the Paterberg and the Koppenberg. These three hills come one after the other in one 10km stretch, and it was in the middle of this section, just over the top of the Paterberg, that Chavanel followed a sharp attack by Cervélo’s new British hope Dan Lloyd.
“The Paterberg on its own is fine,” said Cervélo’s other Brit, veteran Roger Hammond, “it’s just that you’ve done the Old Kwaremont and 130K at full gas before that. On most cobbled climbs there’s a racing line. If you’re not in the first 10, you have to go outside that line, and then it’s hard.”
The peloton was still about 60 strong at that point, and four others joined Lloyd and Chavanel, including Italy’s Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), before the Koppenberg, where these six riders caught the last survivors of the only earlier break: Aleksandr Kuschynski (also Liquigas) and Wim De Vocht (Vacansoleil).
Eventually, only Chavanel and Quinziato survived from this eight-man group, while the real endgame began when co-race favorite Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) attacked on the 14-percent section of climb No. 11, the Berendries, with 43m still remaining. The longhaired Italian was immediately countered by Boonen, while Devolder convincingly bridged up to them, followed by Garmin-Slipstream’s impressive Martijn Maaskant.
“We wanted to be in the early break, but there wasn’t really one,” Maaskant told VeloNews. “After more than 100Ks, we had no one, unfortunately. The guys were riding for me. And Julian [Dean] was riding really good, but he dropped his chain before the Koppenberg.”
Not having strong teammates is a severe handicap in the Tour of Flanders, especially in dry conditions like on Sunday. “There were some guys like me and Pozzato,” Maaskant added. “And when you don’t have teammates around you in the final you can only attack once or twice.”
That wasn’t the case with the Quick Step riders, who simply let their opponents wear themselves out before making the decisive moves. Devolder, just as he did last year, saved his strongest attack for the Elkenmolen, hill No. 14, with 25km to go. This climb has only one steep pitch in its 610 meters, but it was enough for the defending champion to bridge to earlier attacker Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen), and then join Chavanel and Quinziato before they reached the always-decisive Mur de Grammont.
With his companions all on the ropes, Devolder left them gasping on the Mur’s short 20-percent pitch about 400 meters from the summit — where he raced between walls of exuberant fans, who just love to see a fellow Flandrian racing clear for the win.
There were still 16km to race, but Devolder never looked back, maintaining a furious 90-rpm cadence on the flats and downhills after grinding his way up the last of the 16 hellingen, the Bosberg, with 12km left.
“Some teams had a few guys up there,” Maaskant said, referring to Silence-Lotto, Columbia and Vacansoleil, “but I don’t understand what they were doing. They should have chased back Devolder earlier.”
But when Quick Step also had three guys to control the chase, there was no catching the unstoppable Devolder.
Too many crashes
One team that might have chased had it had another man up front was Saxo Bank, but a strong Karsten Kroon had already lost his Swiss teammate Fabian Cancellara on the Koppenberg.
“We always joke that when you have full power you’re going to break everything, but now it happened,” Cancellara said, referring to his SRAM Red chain, which snapped midway up the Koppenberg when he was at the front of the peloton. “I was riding good, but I had bad luck at the most important point in the race. It was also the weakest point where there were no cars or support.”
While Cancellara turned around and retrieved his broken chain, Quick Step’s Carlos Barredo fell heavily when going up the Koppenberg and was taken to the hospital with severe chest injuries.
In what was a nasty day for crashes, three others went to the hospital. The most seriously hurt was Lampre’s Mirco Lorenzetto, who fell hard and suffered a head injury at Herzele after 108km of racing. Spaniard José Garcia Acosta (Caisse d’Épargne) fell on a section of cobblestones a few kilometers later and fractured a wrist; and Austrian sprinter Rene Haselbacher (Vorarlberg-Corratec) badly injured his face in another incident. Other crash victims included Saxo Bank’s Frank Hoj, who broke his right clavicle, and Cervélo’s Hayden Roulston, who has a knee injury.
The many crashes included several slow-motion pileups when the massive peloton tried to squeeze onto tiny farm roads in the middle part of the race. Seventy of the 197 starters didn’t make it to the finish, and 11 others, including Garmin-Slipstream’s Svein Tuft, finished outside the official time limit.
Despite the addition of the Roubaix-like pavé sections, this year’s Flanders was the fastest on the current variation of the classic’s rugged course — 23 minutes faster than last year’s race held in cold and windy weather, for an average speed of 43.455 kph.
Bearing that in mind, Devolder’s victory margin of 59 seconds, compared with only 15 seconds in 2008, was simply remarkable.
Gilbert surprises: The surprising third-place finisher at Meerbeke was the French-speaking Belgian Philippe Gilbert, who only started the race after local newspapers pleaded his case with his team directors at Silence-Lotto. After abandoning in Paris-Nice a few weeks ago, Gilbert stepped up his training miles with a view to doing well in his hometown race Liege-Bastogne-Liège later this month. Then, to relieve persistent cramping, he changed to wider handlebars last Friday, and this helped him ride strong on the hills of Flanders — especially when he attacked from the chase group on the day’s final climb, the Bosberg. Then, when Devolder’s former break members Chavanel, Quinziato and Van Hecke were caught inside the final kilometer, Gilbert decided to go for the final sprint. Although Haussler attacked before the sprint to take second, Gilbert led out the group from 250 meters, and after Hincapie, Hushovd and two others got tangled up in a crash, the Silence-Lotto rider hung on to take third place.
Haussler moves up: The 80 points he earned for second place helped move Haussler up to second overall in the UCI World Calendar rankings. Quick Step’s Allan Davis remains in first with 182 points, now only 15 points ahead of Haussler, with Paris-Nice winner Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Épargne) dropping to third with 111 points.
VeloNews editor in chief Ben Delaney contributed to this report.
1. Stijn Devolder (Bel), Quick Step, 261.5km in 6:01:04 (43.5kph)
2. Heinrich Haussler (Ger), Cervelo Test, at 0:59
3. Philippe Gilbert (Bel), Silence-Lotto, at 0:59
4. Martijn Maaskant (Ned), Garmin-Slipstream, at 0:59
5. Filippo Pozzato (Ita), Katusha, at 0:59
6. Matti Breschel (Den), Saxo Bank, at 0:59
7. Marcus Burghardt (Ger), Columbia-Highroad, at 0:59
8. Bjorn Leukemans (Bel), Vacansoleil, at 0:59
9. Martin Elmiger (Swi), AG2R La Mondiale, at 0:59
10. Bert De Waele (Bel), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, at 0:59
11. Alexandre Pichot (Fra), BBox Bouygues Telecom, at 0:59
12. Johnny Hoogerland (Ned), Vacansoleil , at 0:59
13. Roger Hammond (GBr), Cervelo Test, at 0:59
14. Karsten Kroon (Ned), Saxo Bank, at 0:59
15. Nick Nuyens (Bel), Rabobank, at 0:59
16. Roy Sentjens (Bel), Silence-Lotto, at 0:59
17. Kevin Van Impe (Bel), Quick Step, at 0:59
18. Frederik Willems (Bel), Liquigas, at 0:59
19. Bert Scheirlinckx (Bel), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, at 0:59
20. Tom Boonen (Bel), Quick Step, at 0:59
21. Gerben Löwik (Ned), Vacansoleil, at 0:59
22. Staf Scheirlinckx (Bel), Silence-Lotto, at 0:59
23. Serguei Ivanov (Rus), Katusha, at 0:59
24. Andreas Klier (Ger), Cervelo Test, at 0:59
25. Preben Van Hecke (Bel), Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator, at 0:59
26. Assan Bazayev (Kaz), Astana, at 0:59
27. Leif Hoste (Bel), Silence-Lotto, at 0:59
28. Paolo Longo Borghini (Ita), Barloworld, at 0:59
29. Frédéric Guesdon (Fra), Française Des Jeux, at 0:59
30. Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa), Rabobank, at 0:59
31. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra), Quick Step, at 1:08
32. Manuel Quinziato (Ita), Liquigas, at 1:11
33. Sebastian Langeveld (Ned), Rabobank, at 1:14
34. George Hincapie (USA), Columbia-Highroad, at 1:44
35. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel), Silence-Lotto, at 3:02
36. Anthony Geslin (Fra), Française Des Jeux, at 3:06
37. Murilo Fischer (Bra), Liquigas, at 3:17
38. Aleksandr Kuschynski (Blr), Liquigas, at 3:17
39. Bram Tankink (Ned), Rabobank, at 3:17
40. Matteo Tosatto (Ita), Quick Step, at 4:37
41. Marco Bandiera (Ita), Lampre-NGC, at 4:37
42. Simon Spilak (Slo), Lampre-NGC, at 4:37
43. Grégory Rast (Swi), Astana, at 4:57
44. Gabriel Rasch (Nor), Cervelo Test, at 5:38
45. Daniel Lloyd (GBr), Cervelo Test, at 5:38
46. Kristof Goddaert (Bel), Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator, at 6:45
47. Saïd Haddou (Fra), BBox Bouygues Telecom, at 6:45
48. Steve Chainel (Fra), BBox Bouygues Telecom, at 6:45
49. Marcel Sieberg (Ger), Columbia-Highroad, at 6:45
50. Yoann Offredo (Fra), Française Des Jeux, at 6:45
51. Koldo Fernandez (Spa), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 6:45
52. Cyril Lemoine (Fra), Skil-Shimano, at 6:45
53. Reto Hollenstein (Swi), Vorarlberg-Corratec, at 6:45
54. Michael Schär (Swi), Astana, at 6:45
55. Aart Vierhouten (Ned), Vacansoleil, at 6:45
56. Imanol Erviti (Spa), Caisse d’Epargne, at 6:45
57. Ermanno Capelli (Ita), Fuji-Servetto, at 6:45
58. Arnaud Labbe (Fra), BBox Bouygues Telecom, at 6:45
59. Maxim Iglinsky (Kaz), Astana, at 6:45
60. Mathew Hayman (Aus), Rabobank, at 6:45
61. Josep Jufre (Spa), Fuji-Servetto, at 6:45
62. Patrick Calcagni (Swi), Barloworld, at 6:45
63. Martin Velits (Svk), Milram, at 6:45
64. Johan Coenen (Bel), Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator, at 6:45
65. Markel Irizar (Spa), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 6:45
66. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor), Columbia-Highroad, at 6:45
67. Matthew Goss (Aus), Saxo Bank, at 6:45
68. Wim De Vocht (Bel), Vacansoleil, at 6:45
69. Nikolay Trusov (Rus), Katusha, at 6:45
70. Sébastien Hinault (Fra), AG2R La Mondiale, at 6:45
71. Wim Van Huffel (Bel), Vorarlberg-Corratec, at 6:45
72. Bernhard Eisel (Aut), Columbia-Highroad, at 6:45
73. Maarten Wynants (Bel), Quick Step, at 6:45
74. Kevin De Weert (Bel), Quick Step, at 6:45
75. Jeremy Hunt (GBr), Cervelo Test, at 6:45
76. Steven Cummings (GBr), Barloworld, at 6:45
77. Dmitriy Muravyev (Kaz), Astana, at 6:45
78. Lieuwe Westra (Ned), Vacansoleil, at 6:45
79. Martin Müller (Ger), Milram, at 10:48
80. Huub Duyn (Ned), Garmin-Slipstream, at 12:32
81. Geert Verheyen (Bel), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, at 12:32
82. Arnaud Gerard (Fra), Française Des Jeux, at 12:32
83. Marlon Perez (Col), Caisse d’Epargne, at 13:53
84. Pedro Horrillo (Spa), Rabobank, at 13:53
85. Servais Knaven (Ned), Milram, at 13:53
86. Mathieu Drujon (Fra), Caisse d’Epargne, at 13:53
87. Enrico Franzoi (Ita), Liquigas, at 13:53
88. Nikolas Maes (Bel), Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator, at 13:53
89. Bert De Backer (Bel), Skil-Shimano, at 13:53
90. Koen Barbe (Bel), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, at 13:53
91. Steven Cozza (USA), Garmin-Slipstream, at 13:53
92. Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Nor), Saxo Bank, at 13:53
93. Geert Steurs (Bel), Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator, at 13:53
94. Kevin Neirynck (Bel), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, at 13:53
95. Maarten Tjallingii (Ned), Rabobank, at 13:53
96. Florent Brard (Fra), Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne, at 13:53
97. Angel Gomez (Spa), Fuji-Servetto, at 13:53
98. Sébastien Minard (Fra), Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne, at 13:53
99. Daryl Impey (RSA), Barloworld, at 13:53
100. Daniel Oss (Ita), Liquigas, at 13:53
101. Pieter Vanspeybrouck (Bel), Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator, at 13:53
102. Mathieu Claude (Fra), BBox Bouygues Telecom, at 13:53
103. Roy Curvers (Ned), Skil-Shimano, at 13:53
104. Jens Mouris (Ned), Vacansoleil, at 13:53
105. Floris Goesinnen (Ned), Skil-Shimano, at 13:53
106. Wesley Sulzberger (Aus), Française Des Jeux, at 13:53
107. Christopher Sutton (Aus), Garmin-Slipstream, at 13:53
108. Matthieu Ladagnous (Fra), Française Des Jeux, at 13:53
109. Lars Ytting Bak (Den), Saxo Bank, at 13:53
110. Kasper Klostergaard Larsen (Den), Saxo Bank, at 13:53
111. Gerald Ciolek (Ger), Milram, at 13:53
112. Joost Posthuma (Ned), Rabobank, at 13:53
113. Rui Da Costa (Por), Caisse d’Epargne, at 13:53
114. Daniele Righi (Ita), Lampre-NGC, at 13:53
115. Arnaud Coyot (Fra), Caisse d’Epargne, at 13:53
116. Daniele Nardello (Ita), Fuji-Servetto, at 13:53