Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) repeated last year's victory in almost identical style, soloing away in the final kilometres for his second consecutive win the Vlaanderens Mooiste. The 29-year-old Belgian dropped his breakaway companions on the penultimate climb of the day, the legendary cobbled Muur of Gramont, and from then on, he raced to glory on the roads toward the finish in Meerbeke. While crossing the line, Devolder gestured in honor of his recently deceased friend and fellow racer Frederik Nolf.
"This is unbelievable. I've lived up to this race for so long and I encountered a lot of bad luck," said Devolder. I worked hard with all the people that kept believing in me. I said I would win and I did it."
"It was very weird race. I was able to join [Tom] Boonen (Quick Step) and [Filippo] Pozzato (Team Katusha) after the Berendries, and then I pulled through toward the leaders. I recovered, and on the Muur, I played my last card," said Devolder.
"I'm planning to stay focused on this race during the next few years as the Ronde van Vlaanderen remains the most important race of the year for me," said Devolder.
An aggressive Heinrich Haussler (Cervélo TestTeam) anticipated the final sprint and escaped from the large chase group on the finishing straight to finish second. The bunch sprint was won by Philippe Gilbert (Silence-Lotto). Pozzato and Martijn Maaskant (Garmin - Slipstream) followed to finish fourth and fifth.
"I didn't have the legs today," said Haussler. "In the end I was going to ride for Thor, but he told me to attack, so I went."
After the race, favorite Boonen explained that racing for the victory wasn't possible for the day since the other top favorite, Pozzato, wasn't chasing any other wheel than his.
"The shadow," Boonen described Pozzato. "Everybody saw that we were killing each other. I couldn't drop him, and he couldn't drop me. When we attacked, we distanced everybody, but he didn't want to continue. So for me, the door was closed, but it opened the door for Stijn and Sylvain (Chavenel)."
"Boonen was the strongest, compliments to the Quick Step team," said Pozzato.
Fast start out of Brugge
Shortly after leaving the packed "Grote Markt" in medieval-like Brugge at 10:00 am, it was clear that many teams had ordered their riders to get into the classic, early break. As a results, the average speed during the first three hours was extremely high.
When approaching the first of the sixteen hellingen, the Molenberg, the peloton was riding ten minutes ahead of the fastest schedule. As a result, it took 125 kilometres before the first breakaway group was established, and it included just four riders: Wim De Vocht (Vacansoleil Pro Cycling Team), Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas), Sebastien Turgot (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) and Filip Meirhaeghe (Landbouwkrediet - Colnago).
Finale starts on Paterberg
Cervélo TestTeam showed its global strength as they lined up with five guys in front of the peloton approaching the Oude Kwaremont. The long, cobbled climb didn't appear to provide the expected spectacle at the front, but in fact, the action happened further back, where a tough selection separated the peloton into two groups.
Cervélo led the first part of the peloton toward the short, but extremely steep and cobbled Paterberg, and that's where the race exploded. About twenty riders distanced the rest, but clearly the favorites were still hesitating whether to go on or not.
Six men anticipated the Koppenberg and jumped away toward the two riders who were still left off the front. Right after the Kwaremont, Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto), Frederic Guesdon (Française Des Jeux), Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Daniel Lloyd (Cervelo Test Team) and Marco Bandiera (Lampre - N.G.C.) drove the chase.
Boonen vs. Pozzato, part one: Koppenberg
Favorites Boonen and Pozzato engaged in a scrimmage of sorts on the legendary Koppenberg. The two riders hammered up the cobbles, shoulder to shoulder. Meanwhile, Team Saxo Bank 's Fabian Cancellara's chances for the day ended when he broke his chain. First, he walked up the rest of the hill, then he turned around and rode halfway back down to collect his chain, which he hung around his neck as a sort of souvenir.
Eight kilometres later, the two jumped away from the peloton thanks to an acceleration from Boonen.
Only seventeen riders were able to bridge up with them before the eighth helling, the Eikenberg. That's also where early attacker De Vocht got dropped from the front, reducing the leader's group to seven riders. A group of about twenty riders joined the Boonen group, and on the Varent, a new climb, the peloton took it easy.
Going into the Leberg, the tenth climb of the day, the gap from the seven leaders grew to more than one minute.
Boonen vs. Pozzato, part two: Berendries
Upon reaching the Berendries, Chavanel, Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) and Hoste dropped their four breakaway companions, but one minute later Pozzato copied the attack he had launched during the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde earlier this week. Boonen was glued to his wheel, and defending Flanders champion Devolder bridged up a little later.
The three chasers steamed towards the leaders, picked up Bandiera, and with 36 kilometers to go, right after the Valkenberg (climb number 12), they joined the front trio. This seven-man lead group didn't stay together for long as Quinziato sneaked away together with Chavanel.
Quick Step left the chasing initiative to the other riders and as a result, a small peloton gathered half a minute behind the two leaders on the steep Tenbosse street. Just past this climb, Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen - Mercator) anticipated the next climb and jumped away from the peloton.
Quinziato and Chavanel arrived at the fourteenth climb, the Eikenmolen, with forty seconds on the reduced peloton.
The Muur: Devolder again
Devolder attacked the leader's group on the packed, legendary Muur of Gramont, with Quinziato and Chavanel unable to respond. In the peloton, Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) started the debate on the Muur, but Hoste took over with Boonen and Pozzato on his wheel.
Van Hecke bridged back up with Quinziato and Chavanel, but this trio soon trailed by half a minute the unleashed Devolder. The front group, including Boonen, followed at one minute behind Devolder.
The relative positions of the lead racers remained the same over the Bosberg despite efforts from Flecha and Gilbert in the peloton. Devolder was unstoppable and gathered up to one minute over the three chasers as he approached the Meerbeke.
Behind a celebrating Devolder, the chasing trio was reeled in by the peloton that would sprint for second place. Haussler anticipated the group's sprint and launched off the front to capture second place.
A serious crash ruined the chances of riders like Greg Van Avermaet (Silence-Lotto) and Gregory Rast (Astana). Gilbert captured third place ahead of Pozzato and Maaskant.