After a Classics drought that has spanned half a decade, two-time Tour of Flanders champion Stijn Devolder appears to have recaptured his form of old, and he could be the Trek Factory Racing team's second line of defense behind defending champion Fabian Cancellara in the cobbled Classic this Sunday.
Devolder won the Tour of Flanders with back-to-back solo efforts in 2008 and 2009, but since then he's struggled to find the form to repeat those feats. In 2012, he showed flashes of brilliance at the E3 Harelbeke, attacking twice in the final 10km, but was so anonymous during the rest of his time with Vacansoleil that his team refused to renew his contract.
Since moving to Radioshack (Trek) in 2013, however, Devolder has made a steady progression back to the ranks of champion, first winning his national road race title last season, and then finishing just off the podium in the Driedaagse van West Vlaanderen.
During the build-up to the Tour of Flanders, Devolder has been aggressive in the Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelebeke and in Gent-Wevelgem, where he escaped with BMC's Sylvain Dillier and Andrey Amador (Movistar) with 20km to go, and was only caught in the final kilometer.
"When [Silvan] Dillier went it was intuitive of me to go too, there were no more climbs left so no more strategy for us either," Devolder said. "It's too bad that behind the others collaborated well. Dirk [Demol] and Luc [Meersman] from the car kept telling me, 'believe in it, believe in it, it's possible'. I believed in it, and I gave it my all, but in the end we were caught with just over 1k to go."
Despite the lack of a result, and in spite of winding up on the ground in a number of crashes throughout the early Belgian races, Devolder was optimistic about his state of fitness after Gent-Wevelgem.
"My form is good, and I already showed that in Harelbeke when I had to bridge to front group after the crash," Devolder said. "Today I tried and just missed it; maybe with a little more luck it would have worked. I believed we had it until 2k to go. Then when [Andre] Greipel crashed we thought this could be a key moment - that it could disrupt the chase behind – but not really. We had excellent collaboration between the three of us."
Could 2014 be the year that Devolder finally joins Fiorenzo Magni, Achiel Buysse, Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen as the most decorated riders in Tour of Flanders history with three victories apiece? The Belgian champion would not hazard a guess after the 233km Gent-Wevelgem, leaving a cadre of reporters with empty notepads: "Now I am going to ride some more kilometers - my dad is waiting with the derny," he said, and rode off.