Stijn Devolder surprised many when he emerged from the wilderness to bring order to the leading group of the Tour of Flanders on the final approach to the Kwaremont last April, but in spite of his key role in Fabian Cancellara’s eventual victory, the double Ronde winner is under no illusions as to his status within the Trek Factory Racing hierarchy in 2014.
Taken on by RadioShack after two listless seasons as a leader at Vacansoleil – it would prove to be Johan Bruyneel’s final deal before USADA’s Reasoned Decision ended his tenure – Devolder’s signing was viewed as something of a gamble, but he paid out a dividend by calmly piloting Cancellara through a fraught edition of the Tour of Flanders and then claiming the Belgian title in June.
That impressive Flanders cameo has led Trek manager Luca Guercilena to suggest that Devolder could have greater responsibility in 2014, combining his domestique duties with a parallel role as back-up leader in the cobbled Classics, but the Kortrijk native stressed that his primary task remains to help Cancellara.
"The main goal is to go with Fabian as the big leader, especially when he has the same condition as last year," Devolder told Cyclingnews. “I’ll also try to be in good shape, and if something happens or Fabian isn't on a good day, I can take over. But for now, the idea is to go with one leader in Fabian.”
After landing successive Tour of Flanders victories as a foil to team captain Tom Boonen at QuickStep in 2008 and 2009, Devolder hoped to flourish when he jumped ship for Vacansoleil in 2011. It was to prove an inauspicious voyage, however, and Devolder didn’t win a single race during his two years at the helm of the Dutch squad. His return to form on being hauled ashore by RadioShack suggested that he had struggled with the pressures of leadership, but Devolder politely demurs.
"Actually, although I wasn’t the leader but the pressure was never as high as last year because we had to bring Fabian into good position to win the race, and that makes as much pressure as when you’re the leader yourself," he said. "The pressure was still there, but I have a good feeling on the team and that’s the reason that brought me to a good level."
Pre-Flanders training camp
If joining forces again with long-term mentor Dirk Demol at RadioShack helped Devolder recapture his confidence over the arc of the season, his purple patch at the Classics seems to have been accelerated by a miniature training camp in the week before the Tour of Flanders. Taking a leaf from the playbook of a number of Belgium’s cyclo-cross stars, Devolder went to Moraira, Spain – not far from Valencia – for three days after Gent-Wevelgem. Why?
"The temperatures in Belgium last spring were too cold to do an extra long training for Flanders, so I went to Spain to do that in good temperatures," he said. "I think that’s the reason I was good on the Sunday because I felt my body was getting tired after weeks of racing in very cold circumstances.
"If you do an effort of three or four hours in the cold, your body is completely tired and your muscles don’t react how you want any more, but if you go to warm weather of 20 degrees, you can easily go for six or seven hours, and that makes a big difference."
A welcome by-product of this brief raid to Spain was the chance to prepare for De Ronde away from prying eyes, particularly those of the fervent Flemish public and media. The contrast with the previous two years, where he had been much in demand on start lines at the Three Days of De Panne, was palpable. "When you are in Flanders everybody speaks about the Tour of Flanders but I was there with my family for a quiet and easy three days where nobody asked anything about the race. I could do some hard work there and relax in the evening."
Back on his postage stamp of native soil the following weekend, Devolder took command of the finale of the Tour of Flanders, expertly teeing up Cancellara for eventual victory Oudenaarde. Although there are slight alterations to the parcours in 2014 – there will be just two circuits over the Kwaremont and Paterberg, while the Koppenberg has been shifted closer to the finish – he envisages a similarly tense race on April 6.
"I think the race next year is going to be quite the same: the race is going to explode on the last time up the Kwaremont. Those two last climbs, Kwaremont and Paterberg are going to decide who is going to win the Tour of Flanders," said Devolder, who, quite understandably, prefers the old finish in Meerbeke. "It’s not so easy to attack early on the new course."
And the new position of the Koppenberg? "I don’t think that makes a big difference. If anything, I think the race is going to be even more closed because everyone will be afraid of the Koppenberg and everyone will wait to do something because they are scared to go over the Koppenberg."
Ironically, given the team's desire to break with its past as RadioShack, Devolder’s very presence at Trek Factory Racing is due to his close ties with former manager Johan Bruyneel. He raced under Bruyneel and Demol at US Postal Service and Discovery Channel from 2004 to 2007, where he was originally being groomed as a stage racer, finishing 11th at the 2006 Vuelta a España.
"I signed the contract with Johan right before the Armstrong case started," Devolder said. "I was actually very disappointed that he couldn’t be with the team any more because Johan was a very good sports director. I liked to work with him, and I learned a lot from Johan Bruyneel in the years with Discovery Channel and US Postal. Actually, I miss him."
Aware, no doubt, that voicing such support for Armstrong’s former manager is by now neither a popular nor a profitable move, Devolder spoke cautiously when discussing Bruyneel, but reiterated his belief that his former manager had been treated more harshly than others. USADA has recommended a life ban for Bruyneel, and his management of the doping programme in place at US Postal is rigorously detailed in a particularly damning nine-page section of the Reason Decision.
"They haven’t treated him the same way as other people who did the same things in the same period," Devolder said. "We all know that he’s not the only one who was in this situation. There were also a lot of other teams and other people. He had a life suspension and the others had just a short penalty or even nothing."