Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM), who abandoned the Three days of De Panne on Thursday because of the bad weather conditions, will be a dark horse going into the Tour of Flanders this weekend. The two-time winner of the event rode the Driedaagse de Panne as a final preparation for the 'Ronde', but crashed on Wednesday, reportedly injuring his shoulder.
Before the crash, Devolder told Sporza he felt "ready" for his bid to win the Ronde a third time, even though he spoke in great admiration of the race favourite, Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek). "I've seen him on Saturday in Harelbeke, and his performance was the strongest I have ever seen in my career," Devolder said.
"I was left speechless. All the riders in the front group couldn't believe what they saw. It took me another day to recover from that."
Nevertheless, the 31-year-old did not give up hope of beating 'Spartacus'. "Everyone is afraid of him now, so he's not only my problem. But everyone can be beaten, so Cancellara can, too. But we'll have to ride real quick..."
While Devolder is not counted amongst the greatest favourites for the 'Ronde' this year, it is not a position which the Belgian dislikes. "I have won the Ronde twice, and every time I wasn't a leader at the start," he mused. "I will have a strong team, with Bjorn Leukemans at my side. We don't have to talk tactics much before the start. It will be determined during the race."
In fact, the former Quick Step rider has come to accept and value the fact that he is not the centre of attention. "I have never been a leader and I never wanted to," he told L'Equipe. "I don't have the talent of a Tom Boonen or Philippe Gilbert. I'm a hard-working man who's found the means to make up his own small palmarès. I've achieved everything on my own, riding through the fields alone against the elements."
Devolder explained that his introverted character had been an "enormous handicap" in the past, when he was compared to Boonen, always at ease with the media. "We are two extremes, he's the star and I'm just a creep. I'm afraid of the limelight, I don't live for glory. I'm a guy from the countryside."
Since he has stepped out of Boonen's shadow ("When I had my children, I understood that I didn't give a thing about stardom"), Devolder has set himself new goals, also with the help of his new Vacansoleil team. "People say all I want is the Tour of Flanders, but I also dream of other races, like the E3 Prijs or Roubaix. I don't have the same qualities as Boonen, but I think it's possible to get to the velodrome as a winner one day. Besides, in my new house, above the fireplace, I have left some space for a cobblestone, the Paris-Roubaix trophy."