As Stijn Devolder prepares to transition from pro cycling to the agriculture business, he gave an 'exit interview' with the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad, revealing that he thought he had more talent as a stage racer than he did as a Classics rider. The two-time Tour of Flanders winner's development as a Grand Tour rider ended when the Discovery Channel team folded, he said.
In the long-ranging interview, Devolder describes growing up in a family that knew nothing about bike racing and freelancing his way through the early years, modestly avoiding mentions of his early success, winning the Tour of Flanders for juniors twice. He got his first big chance with Mapei.
"When I was an under 23, a letter came at home - an invitation from Mapei to ride a trainee. At the age of 22, I was suddenly sitting at the table with Paolo Bettini, Franco Ballerini and Michele Bartoli in Italy," Devolder says. "I still felt half a centimetre tall."
His time with Mapei did not lead to a contract, and Devolder spent two seasons at the Continental level before being courted by Lance Armstrong's US Postal Service team in 2004. He was equally nervous during his first encounter with his first WorldTour squad when he arrived in Texas and would get to meet his idol.
"I remember Lance suddenly popping up behind me in the morning at the hotel. He introduced himself and quickly put me at ease. Lance is one of the most sympathetic people I have met in cycling, I will leave it at that," he said, adding that it was true that Armstrong once said that Devolder could also win the Tour de France.
"I have no idea if he was right, we'll never know ... I maintain that I have more talent as a Tour rider than as a Classics racer. I was developing in that role at Discovery Channel when the team stopped," he says.
Devolder finished 25th in his first Grand Tour in 2005, racing the Vuelta a Espana in support of Tom Danielson, who finished seventh overall behind Roberto Heras. He was 11th the next year when Danielson took sixth behind overall winner Alexandre Vinokourov. A third place in the Tour de Suisse followed in 2007, and Devolder wore the leader's jersey in the Vuelta after the stage 8 individual time trial, but fell ill and dropped out before stage 19.
"Johan Bruyneel even asked me to skip the Classics the following year," he says, refusing to comment on whether he should have joined the doping programme in the team. "No idea. I don't want to comment on that. It was all changing in those years. I have no idea how that would have turned out."
Devolder was snapped up by QuickStep after the Discovery Channel team folded at the end of the 2007 season. He claimed his first Tour of Flanders win in April, soloing away from Nick Nuyens and Juan Antonio Flecha. He then had his first shot at the Tour de France in 2008, where he hoped to crack the top 10, "but that turned into a drama. I got sick at the start and was so stupid to not to tell anyone. I panicked, I was afraid to not get a chance afterwards. Racing with a fever is the worst thing you can do."
After his success in the Tour of Flanders again in 2009, Devolder never again chased a Grand Tour GC - he switched from QuickStep to Vacansoleil for 2011 and 2012, then to the RadioShack team in 2013. Devolder stayed with Trek for three more seasons before dropping down to the Pro Continental level first with Veranda's Willems-Crelan, and then Corendon-Circus, where he raced his final years.
Devolder says he has no regrets about later focussing on the Classics to the detriment of any Grand Tour ambitions.
"I won the Tour of Flanders twice - my dream course. I would never trade it for a podium place in the Tour de France."
"Veranda's Willems and Corendon-Circus were good years in two great teams. I was the experienced man alongside Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, but you have to be honest: those guys are so good, they don't need any experience. Mathieu only knew the Koppenberg for the Tour of Flanders, because he had already raced 'cross there. But in the race, he is always where he should be. Except for that one time in that planter, of course..."
Devolder went on to have a few more successes, but his star was eclipsed by the likes of Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, and he never again graced the podium of a one-day Classic. He won the elite Belgian road race title three times - in 2007, 2010 and what will now be the final victory of his career, the Belgian title in La Roche-en-Ardenne where he soloed away to win by almost a minute.
"I have often joked with my wife that I could have just stopped in 2013," he says about his year with the RadioShack team. "I was in great shape in the weeks before but I didn't want to show that to anyone. Not even to my own team in the Tour of Switzerland. My director there was Luc Meersman, the father of Gianni, the big favourite for that Belgian championship. He didn't have to know how good I was. He then effectively was second behind me."
Devolder revealed that he trained solely on feel and never knew his VO2 max - what riders' potential is normally judged upon. "In the week before the Belgian Championship, I always raced Halle-Ingooigem. And afterwards, I trained behind the moped. When I won the Belgian Championship in Ronse, I rode around 340 kilometres. Maybe that is not scientifically justified, but it worked for me. I have always followed my feelings during training. I have no idea what my VO2 max is. Not important."
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