An interview with Stijn Devolder, January 31, 2008
The last season at Discovery was a time of self-discovery for Stijn Devolder. Some unexpected results have transformed a Classics specialist and lieutenant to more illustrious team-mates into a genuine stage race contender. Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins caught up with the reigning Belgian champion to reflect on a surprising 2007 and some ambitious targets for 2008.
Having been a member of the Discovery Channel team for four years (the first of which when it was known as US Postal) Devolder had no idea that negotiations with prospective new sponsors would end so abruptly. It seems that he was as shocked as the rest of us when it was announced that the team was to finish at the end of last season. "Yeah, the first moment I was surprised, like everybody. But at the end maybe for me it was a good moment, I made a good transfer to Quick.Step-Innergetic [now simply known as Quick Step - ed.] at the right moment in my career," noted Devolder during the team's camp in Spain.
Indeed, as many riders – and team staff – spent the latter part of 2007 looking around for new contracts, the Belgian champion found that the enforced move has worked to his advantage. "Last year, I found out for myself that I can win big races, so maybe it's interesting to go to a big Belgian team for the next step."
"We had to talk English [at Discovery] and it's Italian here!" - Devolder on some of the teams' differences
Despite being forced to look for a new employer, Devolder – still only 28 years old and reigning Belgian champion – wasn't short of offers, but the team he would choose had to fit in with his own, new found ambitions. "I had some other teams that I could go to but I preferred this team because from the first moment I talked to Patrick Lefevere we had an agreement for all the details and we had the same thoughts about everything, so that's important for me."
One would think that moving from the World's biggest English-speaking team to the World's biggest Belgian one would mean an entirely different culture and the need for some considerable adjustment on his part. Apparently not though: "No, it's quite similar, they are both the two biggest teams of the world... except we had to talk English [at Discovery] and it's Italian here!" He laughs, referring to the Italian-Belgian composition that has always characterised the Quick Step team.
Obviously language was never going to be the only difference though. The team that has won eight of the last nine Tours de France editions is going to have a somewhat different emphasis to one that specialises in the Classics, as Devolder has found. "[Discovery] were also more focused on stage races, here they're more focused on one-day races, but they [took] me for stage races."
Moving to a team where the infrastructure and the majority of his team-mates are from his home country is a positive move for him personally. Particularly since he currently sports his nation's driekleur jersey: "Like I said, it's important for me, especially now I'm champion [of] Belgium, to be in a Belgian team."
2007 was the year where Stijn Devolder began to realise what he was capable of in stage races. Previous time trial victories in races like the Three Days of De Panne-Koksijde and the Tour of Belgium were now matched with strong performances in the mountains, which meant that he was finishing high up in overall classification – something he wasn't quite expecting. "At the beginning I did third place in [the Tour of] Switzerland and I was a little bit surprised for myself, that it went so [well]. Then right after I was Belgian Champion and I won the Tour of Austria."
Lack of experience at this kind of level – and possibly the pressure of his newfound expectation – cost him towards the end of the season though, despite doing enough to spend a day in the leader's jersey of a Grand Tour for the first time. "The Vuelta was a little bit less [satisfying], I expected more from the Vuelta, but after the championships I didn't ride enough to prepare for the Vuelta, I did too [many] criteriums; that's a mistake I made, and I don't want to make the same mistake again this year."
Instead, he looks forward to this season with the confidence and focus of a classification rider, and will approach the biggest race of the year with an eye on a high overall finish. "To go to the Tour I want to do everything right: to go to see the Pyrenees, the Alps, the time trials – to be [well] prepared to go to the Tour de France."
Tour de France
His surprising results of last season have given him – and one of the biggest teams in the sport – the confidence to take aim at the Tour de France for the first time. "That's the reason they [took] me in the team, to do a good overall in the Tour, so I'll do my best to be on my best level there, like I was last year in June and July."
Devolder would be the first to admit that time trialling is where his strengths really lie, like last year's second place finisher Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto). They both may find that 2008 parcours' fewer kilometres against the clock and more mountains may favour the pure climbers like the reigning champion Alberto Contador (Astana). Despite this, he remains upbeat and confident about his chances of a high finish in Paris this July.
"The first time trial is a little bit shorter and at the end there's a long time trial. It's okay; I'm also good in the mountains. So if I do well in the time trials maybe I can hang on in the mountains with the best climbers, I have confidence for that."
The aforementioned Evans has found that it can be difficult when your team is concentrating on stage wins and green jersey competitions. Devolder seems more confident about getting support from the team of Tom Boonen than Evans did from the team of Robbie McEwen. "For sure [we] have a strong team: some riders for the flat stages – to prepare the sprints for Tom Boonen, and then [we] also have some really good climbers – maybe to help me in the mountain stages."
Rather than seeing a conflict between his own classification objectives and those of a sprinter chasing flat stages and green jersey points, he prefers to see the plus side of taking a team with more than one ambition. He also assumes that, as the team has employed him to take on the overall, he will be afforded the help of some of the team's talented climbers.
"If I have three, or a maximum of four, then for me it's okay. You see, we have [Juan Manuel] Gárate, [Matteo] Carrara; they are strong riders in the mountains. For me it's also perfect that they also have some riders for Boonen, you know, then you don't have all the pressure to yourself."
Speaking of more immediate matters, despite not being part of the team due to travel to the Tour of Qatar at the end of the month, Devolder is training in the faster of the team's two halves, due to his new role as lieutenant to Boonen later in the spring. "I'm training with the Boonen group, but I'm starting a little bit later than them, I start at the end of February, in Mallorca. Then I also do the Belgian classics until Paris-Roubaix, then after I take a rest and go to see the stages from the Tour and do some training with the team in the mountains."
As Belgian champion, sporting the driekleur in his country's big races is obviously a big motivation for results, but he also knows his job. "It's also important for me in the Classics like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, but Boonen for sure is the leader there, but I hope to [also do] well there.
"I guess, also for Boonen it's good to have a strong rider at the final of those races." The 2005 World Champion has, in fact, singled out Devolder as the man he needs to help him in the tough final stages of races like those – to take on the role that should have been fulfilled last year by Peter Van Petegem. (Read our interview with Tom Boonen.)
As one of a the few Belgians who can climb, Devolder is a rider who could have ambitions of taking on his Quick Step team-mate, and defending champion in the Olympic road race, Paolo Bettini. However, like most members of the peloton, he realises who his employer is who pays the bills, and ultimately what his job is this season. But with a hilly course that might suit his characteristics, surely he'd relish the opportunity to go to Beijing? "Yeah, but first my goals are the Spring Classics and then the Tour. But if you finish the course of the Tour well, you also have a perfect condition to do the Olympics.
"My focus is for sure on the Tour, then the Olympics come after, and we'll see what I can do there if I'm in good shape. But it's more important for me that I can prove to the team that err... They expect a lot from me you know, and the most important is to do something back for them.
"Finally, it's the team who pays me so I guess it's more important to do well in the goals... They expect me to do my job, and then after, the Olympics or the Worlds."
Ultimately though, Stijn Devolder is a Belgian cyclist, and current national champion. So while the Tour de France is his primary focus this year, and the Olympic Games would be a nice extra, what – predictably – is the race he'd honestly like to win most this year?
"If I could choose, I would take the Tour of Flanders." He then said with a smile and laugh, "For a Belgian rider it's..."
He may harbour dreams of crossing the line first in Meerbeke this April – especially dressed in his country's colours – but of course he will be working hard to make sure that his captain Tom Boonen wins his third. If all goes to plan though, expect to see his black, yellow and red colours in the final stages of many of this spring's big races...
And as for the Tour de France. If his almost unintentional stage race performances of 2007 are any indicator, who knows?