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News Feature, April 7, 2008
Ronde winner a future Tour contender?
Belgian champion Stijn Devolder took the most important victory of his career when he won Sunday's 92nd Ronde van Vlaanderen. But for the man who has worn the leader's jersey in the Vuelta a España and placed just outside the top ten in the same event, could a Grand Tour be in his future? Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluwé was in Meerbeke to find out.
Stijn Devolder's solo victory in the Ronde van Vlaanderen in the jersey of Belgian champion brought back memories of Eric Vanderaerden's epic win through stormy weather back in 1985. But even more, his win can be compared with the first victory in the Ronde van Vlaanderen from the man who is often referred to as 'the lion of Flanders'. Back in 1993 the lion was still called Johan Museeuw, but just like Stijn Devolder, he is a quiet man from West-Flanders.
Timid and not being known as a chatterer when confronted with the press, Devolder focuses more on the things he excels in. "I have always dreamed of winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen in the jersey of Belgian champion. Today that dream comes true, and I can barely grasp that it really happened," Devolder said at the post-race press conference in Meerbeke, Belgium.
Cyclingnews asked the 28-year-old from Kortrijk what it was like to be riding through a double row of fans when he passed them when riding away from the team bus. The crowd of approximately 15,000 went mad when the Belgian champion passed them towards the start on the Medieval-looking market in Brugge, the heart of West-Flanders. An emotional Devolder said, "It's the most beautiful race of the year. I've never suffered as much as today, but with it there are oceans of people along the roads, it is also something to enjoy while you're suffering. You can't compare it with any other race."
As a young rider and even nowadays Devolder isn't often spotted saving energy when riding his bike. Scandalmongers say he is wasting his energy when he attacks from far way, or starts pulling in front of the peloton when there is still 60 kilometres to cover, like he did today. "I don't give anything about criticism, because there will always be people who criticise you. It's part of your job as a rider, and you have to deal with it," Devolder said, undaunted by such comments.
"Why did I attack? Because otherwise I would just be sitting in that group," he smiled. "I looked around and noticed that everybody was tired, while I felt good; that's why I attacked. Our team had the race totally under control during the finale. I had very good legs today and having me alone in the front was good for Tom [Boonen]. He was sitting in a comfortable chair as it was up to the others to close the gap with our breakaway group, and when they caught us Tom would still be there," Devolder explained the Quick Step team tactics.
For the Belgian champion the situation was ideal as well, as he had a good reason not to co-operate in the move prior to his successful escape. "I noticed that Ballan didn't have the super legs of last year. It is not because you're considered to be the big favourite that you automatically win the race," Devolder hinted out that he didn't care too much that Cancellara and Boonen were the top favourites for the win in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. "When we got caught before the [ascent of the] Eikenmolen, I attacked right away. I knew there was a tailwind until the Muur [in Geraardsbergen]. I hoped to create a gap, and hold on to it until Meerbeke, and it turned out that I managed to do so," Devolder explained.
The new Ronde champion was seen asking the motorcycle official for time gaps after the Bosberg, and it appeared that he was doubting his lead would last. Devolder confirmed, "When the gap was only 15 seconds at the Muur, I thought they would get me back on the Bosberg. Arriving there I was waiting until they would fly past me, but that didn't happen. Apparently the others were tired as well."
During the last kilometres it seemed that Juan Antonio Flecha would be able to bridge up with Devolder, but the Rabobank rider couldn't keep the momentum of his counter-attack going. For a while the Spaniard was 15 seconds down on the Belgian, and with five kilometres to go on a tougher section the gap dropped back to only nine seconds. "I didn't know that Flecha was at nine seconds," Devolder reacted. "I feared the part from before the Bosberg until the finish a bit, as from there on it was a headwind until Meerbeke and that was very tough. If you have a bad moment there, then they return right away, but that didn't happen.
"Anyway, there was only one option for me, and that was to keep going until the finish. I looked back a couple of times, but the only things I saw were motorbikes. They told me I had 15 seconds, and they said it every time I asked," Devolder laughed. "I only thought about holding tight."
Compared to his compatriots who excel in the Spring Classics, Devolder is a different rider as he has high aspirations in the Grand Tours as well. In contrary to team-mate Tom Boonen he isn't entering a Grand Tour as a bunch sprinter, but as rider for the GC. Back in 2006 Devolder finished eleventh in the Vuelta a España, and last year he was wearing the amarillo leader's jersey, for one day after the first time trial at the eighth stage. A victory in the Spring Classics isn't lowering his ambitions in the Grand Tours at all, even though some feel he is more a rider for the Spring Classics, rather than being a GC-rider. "I hope to prove the contrary in July," Devolder stated. After all, the Tour of Flanders is a Tour as well.