By Gregor Brown in Meerbeke
Alessandro Ballan was ready to defend his 2007 Ronde van Vlaanderen title to the highest of standards, but a crash early on in the event lessened the Italian's chances. Despite the incident at 85 kilometres into the 264-kilometre race held in Western Belgium, the Lampre rider battled on to finish fourth.
The 28-year-old's race was affected by a crash in Heestert, where he came down hard on his leg, ripped his shorts and dampened his confidence. "I did not want the crash after 80 kilometres. It compromised me a little bit and I was a little bit afraid of crashing again afterwards." Nevertheless, he kept on strong through the day that was marked with snow and hail. "The cold, it was that way for all of us, so it was okay," Ballan commented modestly.
After the crash, the Italian took a conservative approach to the race until the other big names began to make their moves. "I was very tired; I waited for the favourites," he noted. Ballan marked Tom Boonen on the Berendries at 42 kilometres remaining and went on to form the five-man move with George Hincapie (Team High Road), Karsten Kroon (Team CSC), Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank) and the eventual race winner, Belgian Champion Stijn Devolder (Quick Step).
"Devolder went very, very strong," the Italian continued. There was a lack of organisation which aided Devolder's final attack with 25 kilometres remaining. "I hoped that someone would have helped organise the chase to pull him back; however it came to nothing."
Ballan's chase group was eventually joined by others, including his 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 strong," concluded Ballan.
"There was a lot of confusion, I am sorry that it did not go better for Alessandro," said team-mate Fabio Baldato. "It ended up bad, you really need to have luck and keep out of trouble in this race. I think that Lampre rode a great race; like Spilak, who was really enthusiastic about the day."
Italy's Baldato agreed that the crash ruined Ballan's odds, "Alessandro, not counting the crash that compromised his race, was one of the race's stars today. He played his cards, but was a little washed out by the movements of Quick Step."
Behind the dirt on Baldato's face was a sort of a frown; it was his last Ronde van Vlaanderen in a 17-year career. "For me it was the last Tour of Flanders, but I will take away great memories and emotions from this race."
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