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89th Ronde van Vlaanderen - PT
Belgium, April 3, 2005
An interview with Stijn Devolder, April 1, 2005
In like Stijn
Who is this young Belgian talent who no-one - except Discovery DS Dirk Demol - really knew or wanted to know about until his overall win at the Three Days of De Panne? Cyclingnews' Anthony Tan meets Stijn Devolder, once a dark-horse but now a top favourite for Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Watching his friend and current directeur-sportif Dirk Demol win Paris-Roubaix almost 16 years ago, aged seven, then developing under his guidance as an amateur, aged 14, and then meeting up with him again 10 years later to join what was then called US Postal Service and one of the best teams in pro cycling, one would think Stijn Devolder dreams of emulating Demol's feat in a fortnight's time at the "Hell of the North".
"Actually, the Tour of Flanders is my favourite race," Devolder says to Cyclingnews - two days before his favourite race. "I still like Paris-Roubaix, but I like the Tour of Flanders a little bit more because of the hills."
Yes, with 17 short, sharp climbs in this year's Ronde van Vlaanderen [see parcours], Devolder likes it tough. It's part of the Belgian mentality. And it's in no small part responsible for his overall victory in the Driedaagse van De Panne on Thursday, where the 25 year-old took the biggest win of his career.
After making the decisive breakaway of 11 riders on the first stage to Zottegem, only Italian Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Cafitta) proved too good for the Discovery young gun in the finale, the pair finishing 19 seconds ahead of the break and almost five minutes clear of the peloton. More importantly, though, the outcome gave him leadership of the Discovery Channel team for the remainder of the event, and with two mass sprint-style stages before finishing with a 13.7 kilometre time trial, a one in eleven chance of overall victory.
Ballan knew he was no chrono man, and on the following two stages, the Lampre rider gained some valuable seconds on Devolder, which can often prove decisive with only a short time trial left. However, young Stijn knew he was approaching top form, and wasn't too concerned.
"I was very relaxed, in fact, because I knew my condition was very good and I didn't have to worry too much," he says. "After the morning stage [Stage 3], I was still feeling good, so I knew I had a good chance to win."
His preparation so far had been excellent. A good start at Tirreno-Adriatico, placing fourth on the second stage from Civitavecchia to Tivoli, coupled with a solid Sanremo, where he finished just over a minute behind Alessandro Petacchi, gave him both race form and confidence. But it was his performances in Dwars door Vlaanderen and three days later at the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen that showed Devolder would be a player this Spring. In fact, it was the E3 Prijs that saw him spotted by his old mate Dirk Demol two years ago, where he finished third behind Steven De Jongh and Steffen Wesemann (the latter the most recent winner of the RVV), and where he subsequently boarded the Postal train. Destination: potential stardom.
"The directeur-sportif for Vlaanderen was the only one interested in me," Devolder says about his first two years as a professional at Vlaanderen - T Interim from 2002 to 2003. "I don't know why, because I had some really good results with Mapei [as a stagiaire-Ed] and I showed everybody that I had the ability."
The final stage of De Panne unsurprisingly went to Viatcheslav Ekimov, who capped off a brilliant day for Discovery after Stijn came in like Flynn just eight seconds behind for fifth place, and in doing so, snatched overall victory from Ballan by 16 seconds. This time, his ability was recognised.
"Yes, I was doing the turns really well - almost perfect," recalls Devolder about his performance against the clock less than 24 hours ago. "During the stage, I heard Dirk yelling in my radio, but I couldn't understand him because of the wind. It was a very important victory for myself. I wanted to prove myself to the team, and finally, I have won a big race - [the victory] is a burden off my shoulders."
"He [Devolder] has already done a good season," said Demol after the finish of De Panne. "If it didn't go well, I would have had to have really cheered him up for the Ronde van Vlaanderen."
When asked how much of a confidence boost the win has given him for Sunday, Devolder is quick to play down his chances, even though Discovery has indicated he and George Hincapie are their main men for De Ronde, and realistically, the Belgian could quite easily crack the top 10.
"George is the biggest candidate to win a big classic, and then we have guys like Leif Hoste, Roger Hammond and me," he says about his third go at Flanders. "Because the race is hard, [the final] selection will be made automatically, so we will wait and see. It's nice to have this win, but we'll see about Sunday... "
Demol is equally cautious about Devolder's chances, but there's an overwhelming sense of fervour in his voice: "We're going to start with George as our leader - he's our man for the Classics", he begins, "but we've got guys like Lance [Armstrong], [Roger] Hammond, Leif Hoste and Stijn, who can also be there in the final.
"I have a good feeling about this race, because for the first time, we have four or five guys who can be there in the finale, and with Lance racing for the first time since 2002, it boosts the morale of the whole team. We have different cards to play on Sunday, so we will see how the race goes before deciding how we will play those cards."
So what would be a satisfactory result for the team?
"To win!" says Demol, now full of zeal, before letting out a few big chuckles. "But no, I hope we have at least one person in the right breakaway, and they can be in a position to win. If we can race like we did in De Panne, that would be fantastic."
Irrespective of who will be their trump card, Devolder's worth within the team is assured, as he is set to ride all the major Classics up to and including Liège-Bastogne-Liège, before embarking on a number of stage races. "The harder the stage, the better it is for me. Where the race is hard and the bunch is tight, these are my favourite races," states Devolder.
But unlike Demol words, it's said without a hint of humour.