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Belgian Championships - CN
Ronse, Belgium, May 20, July 1, August 15 & 19, 2007
Day 2 - July 1: Elite men road race, 246.6 km
Devolder hammers his way to the jersey
Suffering in the heat, Boonen sprints to runner-up position
By Brecht Decaluwé in Ronse
The four previous championships held in Ronse often delivered a remarkable finale along the lines of the disputed win from Benoni Beheydt over compatriot Rik Van Looy at the worlds in 1963 and the crash from local hero Claude Criquielion after a manoeuvre from Canadian Steve Bauer resulting in a win for Italian Maurizio Fondriest in 1988.
This year didn't bring any discussion about the winner as the strongest rider also grabbed the flowers at the finish line. Stijn Devolder took down his adversaries in an exciting finale on the slopes of the Kwaremont near Ronse while co-favourite Tom Boonen suffered from the heat and gave way to his in-form compatriot who screamed out his joy toward everybody near the finish line.
"I can hardly believe this, this must be a dream," an emotional Devolder said. "I prepared myself especially for this race and now I pull off something like this with all my fans here, I'm so happy for them. I did this also for my family because we have some rough months behind us."
Team-mate Jurgen Van Goolen was in the early breakaway and his only other team-mate from the Discovery Channel team, Gianni Meersman, kept Devolder out of the wind during the early stages of the finale. "Pull a bit, because I'm going to ride them into the ground, " Devolder said to Meersman, who was waiting for his leader together with Cyclingnews at the finish line in Ronse.
Twenty seven year-old Devolder was the first favourite to launch an attack at three laps from the finish line, but that didn't result in a decisive selection. The second time Devolder had to react to a five-man breakaway group featuring Boonen; on the Kwaremont he blasted past Boonen to reach the four remaining leaders right at the top.
"I tried a few times to get away after that, but I had Nuyens on my wheel and thought it was all over," Devolder explained about his reduced chances as a group of 25 riders returned to the front. "Then I gathered all my energy to go for it one more time and rode a time trial to the finish. This is a nice reward."
Looking toward the future, Devolder already has a new goal in sight. "This still has to come across to me, but after a good party tonight I can prepare myself for a good result in the Vuelta a España," he predicted. Despite being in the form of his life, Devolder prefers the Vuelta over the Tour de France. "It's because I would be able to party after a win at the nationals," he joked.
An unexpected feat occurred when Boonen had to let go of the leaders when climbing the Kwaremont, nevertheless Boonen still managed to finish second. "There was a lot of heat, and I probably drank too much, I had to decrease the pressure, " Boonen explained to Cyclingnews. The former world champion had to vomit but recovered fast.
"The last lap was good, and I thought it was still possible because Devolder could fall silent but while everybody rode as fast as they could. He kept riding away from us, that gives even more to his performance," Boonen said. "Five kilometres from the finish, I realized that we wouldn't catch him and that the second place was my maximum. Winning that sprint was good for my morale."
Philippe Gilbert was another favourite and he didn't disappoint too much with the remaining podium spot. "I tried all I could but I was isolated and not feeling super, I had cramps everywhere on the final climb. The strongest man won today, he made the race and didn't need a photo finish," Gilbert said. "Then I managed to finish second behind Boonen in a sprint which isn't bad at all. The favourites are on the podium and that's nice for our country," the always patriotic Gilbert said.
How it unfolded
Huge crowds and sunny weather supported the Belgian peloton when they got underway in Ronse. The first attack was from track racer Wouter Van Mechelen but he couldn't get away. During the first lap, there were multiple attacks from riders with few chances on today's selective course, riders like cyclo-cross world champion Erwin Vervecken but also defending champion Niko Eeckhout. The latter didn't get too far and a few moments later - after 25 km - he crashed into the road barriers, 'Rambo' abandoned.
With 180 km to go, a successful break was formed featuring 14 courageous men. Four Predictor-Lotto riders Johan Van Summeren, Bert Roesems, Wim Van Huffel and young Greg Van Avermaet; Quickstep had Kevin Hulsmans and Kevin Seeldraeyers. Chocolade Jacques had 21 riders at the start and two men featured in the breakaway group, Sven Renders and Kenny De Ketele. Landbouwkrediet had also two men with Bert Scheirlinckx and James Van Landschoot.
Then there were sole representatives like Jurgen Van Goolen (Discovery Channel), Gorik Gardeyn (Unibet), Geert Omloop (Jartazi) and Belgian cyclo-cross champion Bart Wellens. Bart Vanheule (Chocolade Jacques) reacted a few moments too late - together with Kevin Neirynck (Landbouwkrediet), Neirynck gave up the pursuit but Vanheule kept going; a few moments later he received help from teammate De Ketele who dropped back from the front to help Vanheule closing up the final 30 seconds.
The four Predictor riders worked in the lead and the gap grew up to 5'20", it was only when Quickstep took the initiative in the peloton - with 150 km to go - that the gap dropped back. With 100 km to go, Van Huffel pulled hard on the Nieuwe Kwaremont; as a result Hulsmans and Wellens got dropped leaving us with 13 leaders. DFL-Cyclingnews boys Nico Mattan and Robby Meul joined Quickstep in front of the peloton by taking pulls for many kilometres. With 93 km to go, Van Goolen attacked on the Walloon roads - a small part of the course crossed the Belgian language border - as the co-operation in the breakaway group was gone. Van Goolen was caught nine kilometres later.
Meanwhile Scheirlinckx punctured and dropped back to the peloton. The Quickstep riders had a hard time keeping the breakaway under control, but despite their top domestiques Wilfried Cretskens and Kevin Hulsmans throwing in the towel, the remaining Quicksteppers started to close the final two minutes separating the peloton from the 12 leaders. With 75km or five laps to go, the gap was down to 25" and one lap further the break was caught after 150 kilometres in the lead.
Four riders immediately attacked and gained half a minute on the peloton; experienced Erwin Thijs, track racer Iljo Keisse, Gert Steegmans and Van Hecke featured; with three laps to go the four men were brought back. The big guns started to move to the front and it was Stijn Devolder who made everybody suffer on the climb of the Hotond (the climb almost immediately following the Nieuwe Kwaremont), with 40 km to go. Preben Van Hecke was the only one to follow. Olivier Kaisen (Predictor) bridged up later on pushing Quickstep in a defensive role again. When the leaders were caught, Boonen attacked with 33 km to go on a hidden gradient. The former world champion was joined by Bjorn Leukemans, Preben Van Hecke again, Staf Scheirlinckx and later also his teammate Nick Nuyens.
Philippe Gilbert tried to bridge up to the leaders as well but his effort was not hard enough. With 23 km to go, the Boonen group - and more specifically Boonen himself - exploded on the climb. Behind him, Devolder bridged the gap towards Boonen and later on to the leaders on the big chainring in one massive effort. At the top the five leaders had 24" on what remained of the peloton. But when a recovered Boonen started to work himself in the group of 20 behind the leaders it was clear the five wouldn't stay away. Thanks to the work from Maarten Wynants and Peter Van Petegem the leaders were caught and entering the ultimate lap there were still 23 riders in contention for the jersey.
The attack from young guys Wynants and Stijn Vandenbergh was unsuccessful and seemed to bring Boonen in an ideal position to the finish. But when they were caught, Stijn Devolder launched the decisive attack. The 27 year-old quickly gathered 15 seconds and held on to that lead until the crowded finish line in Ronse. Boonen won the sprint of the reduced peloton ahead of Gilbert and Nuyens. The favourites didn't dissapoint in Belgium.
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by Brecht Decaluwé / Cyclingnews.com
Images by Roman Hannes
Images by Luc Claessen/www.ctm-images.com
1 Stijn Devolder 5.46.32 2 Tom Boonen 0.16 3 Philippe Gilbert 4 Nick Nuyens 5 Gorik Gardeyn 6 Igor Abakoumov 7 Bert De Waele 8 Björn Leukemans 9 Johan Coenen 10 Olivier Kaisen 11 Preben Van Hecke 12 Frederik Willems 13 Christophe Brandt 14 Maarten Wynants 15 Nikolas Maes 16 Staf Scheirlinckx 17 Axel Merckx 18 Dominique Cornu 19 Rik Verbrugghe 20 Stijn Vandenbergh 21 Leif Hoste 22 Peter Van Petegem 1.26 23 Serge Pauwels 2.11 24 Dries Devenyns 4.20 25 Steven Caethoven 5.30 26 Koen Barbe 27 Tom Criel 28 Gregory Habeaux 29 Iljo Keisse 30 Greg Van Avermaet 31 Jurgen Van Goolen 32 Geert Omloop 33 Pieter Jacobs 34 Mario Aerts 35 Tom Stubbe 36 Wim Van Huffel 37 Jelle Vanendert 38 Nico Sijmens 8.34 39 Jean-Claude Lebeau 40 Peter Wuyts 41 Glenn D'Hollander