Devolder shines in Belgian driekleur

Solo move pays off for Belgian Champ, Nuyens nabs second over Flecha...

92nd Ronde van Vlaanderen - ProT

Belgium, April 6, 2008

Solo move pays off for Belgian Champ, Nuyens nabs second over Flecha

Stijn Devolder pulled off a coup in the 92nd Ronde van Vlaanderen, attacking and winning solo in the driekleur jersey of Belgian Champion. The 28 year-old Quick Step rider from Kortrijk put in the winning blow at 25 kilometres to go, on the Eikenmolen. Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) mounted a chase out of the group of favourites, including Devolder's team-mate Tom Boonen and 2007 winner Alessandro Ballan (Lampre), but – despite closing to some nine seconds – he could not catch Devolder.

Belgium's Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) caught and passed Flecha in the final three kilometres. The duo finished second and third respectively.

Italian Ballan finished in fourth, followed by USA's George Hincapie (Team High Road), Italian Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) and Norwegian Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Team CSC).

"It was always my dream to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen as Belgian champion, and now that dream has come true. I still can't believe it," remarked Devolder after the 264-kilometre race from Brugge to Meerbeke – a race that was marked with light snow, hail and rain despite finishing in sunshine.

Devolder launched for the first time on the Leberg in the footsteps of Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux). Not satisfied with the five-man move that was eventually formed – with Hincapie, Ballan, Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank) and Karsten Kroon (Team CSC) – and wanting to truly weaken the rest of the competition for his designated team leader, Boonen, he essentially countered his own move.

He made the winning move when he powered forward on the Eikenmolen, leaving only the Kapelmuur and Bosberg climbs to cover. Over the following 25 kilometres leading to Meerbeke he maintained his lead, hitting a maximum time gap of around 20 seconds over the chase. Past the church at the top of the Kapelmuur, Devolder had 17 seconds on the chase with Flecha, Boonen, Ballan, Nuyens, Gregory Rast (Astana) Rast and Niki Terpstra (Team Milram).

Over the Bosberg, leaving 12 kilometres to go, he held nearly the same time – 16 seconds – over a now solo Langeveld. Despite the change in chasers to Flecha and then Nuyens, Devolder kept his advantage to arrive victorious on the Brusselsestraat. He had finished 21st in 2004, and 43rd in last year's running.

"I attacked because I knew it was a tailwind until the Muur," Devolder recalled. "When I had 15 seconds, after the Muur, I thought that they would fly past me on the Bosberg, but apparently they weren't that fresh behind me," Devolder, winner of a stage and overall in this year's Volta ao Algarve, continued.

He had come very close to losing the race of his dreams. "I did not know [Flecha] was at nine seconds. I looked back a few times and only saw motorbikes. They always told me I had 15 seconds."

Cofidis' Nuyens, who also finished second in the Omloop Het Volk, closed to 15 seconds of Devolder and showed an impressive step forward from last year's seventh place.

Rabobank showed extremely well in the race's finale even if they did not get the eventual win. Three-time World Champion Oscar Freire went on a solo flyer that set up the moves by Langeveld and then Flecha. Once the Spaniard was brought back on the Leberg, at 47 kilometres remaining, Langeveld was active at the front until Flecha's chase with six kilometres remaining.

"Don't ask me what went wrong because everything went perfect. Thanks to Sebastian Langeveld I could set back and just follow. And when he was brought back, I attacked," explained 30 year-old Flecha. On Devolder's move, he added, "I just could not close it down."

Last year's winner, Ballan, was compromised by his crash 85 kilometres into the race, which ripped the side open on his shorts. Despite the incident, the 28 year-old from Castelfranco Veneto made the finale with the favourites. "I was very tired," he noted of the day. "Devolder went very, very strong, and I hoped that someone would have helped organise the chase to pull him back; however, it came to nothing."

Ballan's group was eventually joined by others, including team-mate Simon Spilak. "I was with the others up until three kilometres to go, when Spilak arrived in our group; he went right up to the front to pull. Unfortunately, we were not organised in our efforts. Anyway, Devolder went very, very strongly," concluded Ballan.

Hincapie flew High Road's colours by forming part of the earlier move with Devolder. He re-joined the main chase to end the day with fifth, behind Ballan. "I was just pulled back on the Muur, and from that moment I had to recover," he noted of the early escape of five. After the capture "it was very hectic, with a lot of attacks, I could not do anything but hold on."

How it unfolded

It was a fast race right from the start in Brugge, as the riders got underway on the Ronde under unexpected sunshine. In the first hour of racing, 49,5 kilometres were covered. Even during the second hour, the bunch didn't calm down significantly, doing an average of 47,4 km/h on their way down South towards the first berg of the day, the Kluisberg, the first of a long list of hellingen to be mastered.

Unfortunately, April held all its promises and the cold, the rain and even hail caught up with the riders soon enough. The 'break of the day' got away at kilometre 111: Janek Tombak (Mitsubishi), Tom Veelers (Skil Shimano), Sven Renders (Topsport Vlaanderen) and Vincent Jérôme (Bouygues Telecom) opened up a 40-second gap, with Raul Alarcon Garcia of Saunier Duval going after them.

After the second climb of the day, the Nokereberg, the front group had a two-minute advantage over the bunch, with the Spaniard still caught in between. After 129 kilometres ridden, Garcia was caught again by the bunch.

The peloton kept the escapees on a short leash, not letting them get more than 2'15 minutes away, while the favourites were tucked safely inside the bunch. By kilometre 135, the sky cleared up again a little.

As the front men hit the Molenberg after 157 kilometres, the peloton was only 37 seconds behind. But with the climb being very narrow, the road got jammed and the break could gain a few seconds again, extending it to 1'16 after the climb. Robert Wagner (Skil-Shimano) tried to bridge up to the leaders as the difficult parcours took its toll and formed several little groups.

The weather deteriorated again between the Molenberg and the Wolvenberg, and the cobbles were really slippery with a mix of rain and snow. The breakaway split up, and Jérôme and Tombak took off on their own.

After 175 kilometres raced, the lead was still 1'14 minutes for the four front men, which had reformed, with Wagner also making it to the front in a solid solo effort.

Approaching the Oude Kwaremont at kilometre 185, the peloton used the long straight road to Kluisbergen to put an end to the break and get down to business. On the climb, Andreas Klier (High Road), Tomas Vaitkus (Astana) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) made a nice showing, but couldn't hold their advantages after the descent. Johan Van Summeren (Lotto) made sure the pace was high and the bunch hit the Paterberg (kilometre 189) together.

No damages were done in the ascent, but towards the next helling, the famous Koppenberg, the race really started going and tore the peloton apart. A front group of about 20 riders formed, including Leif Hoste (Lotto), Alessandro Ballan (Lampre), Tom Boonen and team-mate Stijn Devolder (Quick Step), the Belgian champion and eventual winner of the race.

As the leaders hit the Koppenberg, the mad weather continued with snow making the riders surely feel comfortable. Boonen tested his rivals, some of whom had to unclip and walk up the slippery cobbles. In the descent, the Belgian got the company of about 10 riders, including Devolder, Hoste, Ballan, Fabian Cancellara (CSC), Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) and Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank).

But on the Steenbergdries (kilometre 200), Hoste had a mechanical. Bad luck for the favourite! Van Summeren stood by his leader but a long chase back to the front began.

Langeveld and Hushovd went clear from the front just before the Taaienberg (kilometre 203), with the Dutch rider first on top of the climb. But riders came back together after the climb, until Oscar Freire (Rabobank) decided to make a move with 53 kilometres to go. George Hincapie (High Road) went after him, but didn't succeed. Freire still had an advantage of 23 seconds over the chasers with 50 kilometres to go.

But the multiple world champion was caught by a Quick Step-driven chase group at the foot of the Leberg, where eventual winner Devolder put on such a high pace that even his team leader Boonen couldn't follow. Devolder kept going and got the company of fellow Belgian Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux), as well as Langeveld.

Devolder, Gilbert and Langeveld were then joined by George Hincapie (High Road), Karsten Kroon (CSC) as well as Ballan, Cancellara and Boonen. After the Berendries (kilometre 221), the sun came out on the riders again, and Langeveld gave it a go solo. But with Cancellara in the chase group, the Dutch rider had to give in...

As the race hit the Valkenberg, five riders emerged: Ballan, Devolder, Langeveld, Hincapie and Kroon. They maintained some 20 seconds over the main group entering the final phase of the event with 30 kilometres to go. Fortunately, the weather god had some mercy and the sun came out to dry the roads for the finale.

Liquigas and Cofidis led the chase group of about 40 riders, hunting the lead quintet. They eventually got caught at the foot of the Eikenmolen (25 kilometres to go), where Devolder counter-attacked immediately to make his winning move.

Hushovd, Tombak (who was in a much earlier break), Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) and Manuel Quinziato peeled off the front to try and chase Devolder down. With 18 kilometres to go, Devolder had 26 seconds over the Hushovd group and 35 over the main bunch, in which his leader Boonen didn't move.

The Muur of Geraardsbergen made the main bunch catch up with the first chase group, but Devolder held onto his lead. A new chase group formed including Ballan, Flecha, Boonen, Langeveld, Gregory Rast (Astana), Nuyens and Niki Terpstra (Milram) flying down the descent, some 15 seconds behind Devolder.

On the Bosberg, the last climb of the day, it looked like Devolder was going to get caught by Langeveld, but the Belgian managed to keep the infatiguable Dutchman at bay. With 10 kilometres to go, Devolder had about 15 seconds to Langeveld, and 30 seconds to the group.

Seven clicks to the line, Flecha, Rast and Tombak closed in on Langeveld. As Nuyens jumped, Boonen followed, and the chase group was back together, 19 seconds adrift of the solo leader.

But the Spaniard did not give in with victory so near. He attacked again with four kilometres to go, this time followed by Nuyens, who joined him two kilometres off the finish line. Devolder was still at large, 13 seconds away, riding the time trial of his life.

Devolder took the Ronde victory after 25 kilometres alone at the front. While the Belgian champion was being celebrated by his homeland public, Nuyens fought down Flecha for second.

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