By Brecht Decaluwé in Kortrijk, Belgium
The Belgian Quick Step formation holds most favorites in its ranks for the win in Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. On Friday the team trained on the most important sections of the course in order to check out the condition of the cobbles.
In Paris-Roubaix, the team will be protecting Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel and winner of last Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen Stijn Devolder. After taking his second consecutive win last weekend in Flanders, Devolder can relax going into the "hell of the north". The pressure is off.
"It's true. I'm somewhat more relaxed than the others," said Devolder. "Then again, I'm as motivated as always. Whenever cobbles come in sight I'm eager to start racing."
When asked about the magic involved in riding fast over the cobbles, Quick Step's big guns gave different answers to Cyclingnews. While Boonen claimed it was all about talent, team manager Patrick Lefevre said that one should handle the bike like a woman. "You just have to let her go, while holding the reins gently," Lefevre said.
Devolder agreed and couldn't understand why some seem unable to ride the cobbles smoothly. "I have never gotten blisters on my hand. Are they holding their wheels maybe?" Devolder wondered.
Just like his teammate Boonen, Devolder has won the Tour of Flanders on two occasions. However, Boonen has also won Paris-Roubaix twice while victory in the nothern French Classic has thus far eluded Devolder, who finished seventh last year. "The Ronde is on top of my wish list, but I haven't won Paris-Roubaix, and I certainly want to have it on my palmares one day," Devolder said.
Quick Step's other big gun, Sylvain Chavanel, could turn out to be one of Devolder's biggest rivals for the victory. "We didn't discuss this topic. We never talk about cycling outside the races. Of course, we're talking during the race," said Devolder. "We all know that Tom is good, which he made clear last Sunday [Ronde van Vlaanderen]. Champions always want to win but much will depend on how the race unfolds."
During the Gent-Wevelgem race on Wednesday, the Quick Step team did not feature in the leader's group of more than thirty riders. Boonen had an excuse - he punctured - but the other Quick Step riders were not having a good day. "On Wednesday, we failed as a team, and it shouldn't have happened. Maybe it was good for us as it might have woken us up in time to take revenge in Roubaix," said Devolder, who is hoping for dry conditions on Sunday.
"We've been soaked enough this season," he said, "although I'll be ok if it's not dry. In the road book they talk about la dure des dures (the hardest of the hard - ed.) so it's going to be hard no matter what."
After the reconnaissance of "Hell of the North" on Friday, the riders of the Quick Step team know what awaits them on Sunday. Devolder is expecting the race to develop similarly to the others of the season: fast from the start.
"I'm expecting a fast race, just like during the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Our team will be one of the strongest forces in the race. We are riding for each other, not against each other," said Devolder, dismissing any speculation about rivalry within the team.
"Anyway, it's not obvious that we're going to win the race. We're not changing tactics, and I'm not going to focus on someone else; that is the most stupid thing to do," Devolder said. He noted his picks for the day, other than his teammates, include Filippo Pozzato and Leif Hoste.
"My season's already good by having won Flanders," said Devolder. "If I were to win in Roubaix, I would be extremely pleased, but if someone else on the team wins, that would be just the same."