In some ways it feels like my relationship to cycling will always be trapped in the 2010 Ronde van Vlaanderen. That’s hardly a complaint, of course: the 2010 edition was the last of the great battles on the Muur van Geraardsbergen (I see you, ENECO Tour or whatever), and featured a two-up clash between two of the greatest riders the Cobbled Classics have ever seen. For me personally, it was the first time I witnessed the Cobbles first-hand, on the Muur no less, and have been pinching myself ever since, trying to make sure it wasn’t a dream. Cycling continues to be great and wonderful each year, so I don’t expect anyone else to be as fixated on the past as I am; it’s merely my own experience.
So when Matti Breschel called it quits this season after a reasonably long career, limited of late by arthritis, I found myself looking back a bit at the battles of the Boonen-Cancellara Era. Breschel was a top lieutenant on Cancellara’s Saxo Bank squad, and was positively on fire that spring of 2010. He had won Dwars door Vlaanderen and probably should have won Gent-Wevelgem, but a puncture took him out of the leading group with 16km to go. On the big day, we wondered what we would see from him and whether he, not Cancellara, was Saxo’s main threat to win. [Cancellara hadn’t really done much in Flanders yet, just one lone sixth place, though his E3 win the week prior suggested something was afoot.] Breschel was a big-time rider, and probably still has some nasty things to say about the team mechanics after several bike issues caused him to drop back and settle for 15th.
But if Cancellara had to keep an eye on his pesky lieutenant, then I don’t even know what you would say about Boonen and his place in the race leading up to the event. On his Quick Step team was Stijn Devolder, a clear threat to win the race out from under his illustrious teammate. He’d already done it twice. The first time was kind of cool, but the second time wasn’t the charm for Tommeke, and a third... well, nerves within the Quick Step juggernaut were beginning to fray.
Devolder called an end to his long career yesterday, one that dates back to 1996, if you start the clock with Juniors events, which you should with guys who won the juniors edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen in back to back years (and took second in the U23 race later too). Devolder was an accomplished time triallist, a three-time Belgian national road champion, and a man for the classics throughout his career. He was a competent climber to go along with his work against the watch, and occasionally got thrown out by Quick Step and other teams (coughDiscoverycough) as a GC hopeful at stage races — even the Tour — not unlike a pizza parlor grudgingly offering pasta on the menu. It may sound silly in hindsight, but he did take third in the Tour de Suisse once, and third on a Lagos de Covadonga stage of the Vuelta (earning him a stint in the leader’s kit), so I am not making this up. Dude could ride, practically anywhere.
But mostly we are talking about Two-Time Ronde van Vlaanderen Winner Stijn Devolder.
In my book I wrote an entire subchapter about Devolder called The Flummoxing Flandrien, which sums up the situation pretty well. A man from Kortrijk, born to win at home, takes two Flanders victories and is aiming for a record-tying third straight, one that would grant him a place among the Gods... wait, what? Aren’t we talking about Boonen’s lieutenant?
We were, and there’s the rub. Devolder’s two wins were about as identical as two race results can be, characterized by late solo attacks from a small group of attackers, while the main favorites to win are lagging behind sitting firmly on the wheel of one Tom Boonen. Devolder’s victories were powered as much by Boonen’s fearsome reputation as they were by Stijn’s own legs. Had his teammate and captain not already been the ultimate Flanders rider (and by the time he was finished, the owner of a share of every cobbles record), would Devolder have even won once?
This is the question that will follow Devolder around forever. And it sounds cruel, but I suspect in Belgium it’s not entirely unfair. For starters, he is a two-time Ronde winner. He got to experience the glory and fame of winning his country’s signature event, twice, on the old course, and in the Belgian champ’s kit (in ‘08) for good measure. The visual of him crossing the finish line looking like the flag of Belgium come to life is about everything a kid from Kortrijk could ask for.
And what’s so bad about stealing wins from Boonen, if that’s how you see it? It wasn’t Devolder’s fault that he was born around the same time as probably the best-ever, and head to head there would have been no shame in losing to Boonen. But cycling is a team sport, a point driven home by Devolder’s experience as much as any data point ever. Quick Step are the masters of holding an ace while being completely willing to play the king, if that’s what it takes. Devolder was the king. There was nothing he could do to become the ace. But when his team needed to play him as the card, he was ready and he delivered.
Both of Devolder’s wins were works of Flemish art. In 2008, Devolder spent the first 200km looking frisky at the front of the race, and got in that typical “last 50km” break that, if not decisive, tends to shape the outcome of the race. As he and his mates started up the Eikenmolen with 25km remaining, the peloton crept up from behind, ready to take the mantle from the pretenders... and then Devolder took off, countering the break and the charging pack just when he was expected to submit. He held off the race by 15 seconds while Juan Flecha searched in vain for the strength to reel him in, hampered significantly by Boonen’s presence on his wheel.
The win, however, did little to convince Quick Step’s rivals that they should focus on Devolder over Boonen, so in 2009 it was time to reinforce the point. This time it was more than just Boonen who sealed the win, as various Quick Step lieutenants chased down the chasers after Devolder took off on the Muur. We often like to say that the winner is the strongest rider, but it’s a tone-deaf way to describe the tactics of a race, and here the story was about a surging Pippo Pozzato being forced to ride on the defensive, out of his comfort zone, by a team that likes to take away the thing you do best. If you’re an American football fan (and not thoroughly nauseated by what I’m about to say) you could liken it to Bill Belichick’s Patriots teams who for 20 years have sized up their opponent’s strengths and taken away their best thing, forcing them to try to win by doing things outside their sweet spot. I’m sure you can find analogies in every team sport for this maneuver. Hell, there’s probably a chapter in The Art of War that says pretty much this.
So it’s fair to say that Devolder benefited from the race’s dynamics which began with his ultra-strong teammate Boonen but didn’t end there, with teammates like Chavanel and Tosatto playing their parts to perfection as well. Devolder was a beneficiary of circumstance. But he too had a role to play in all this, and did it to perfection. It all worked because he was strong enough and tactically sharp enough to pull it off. So don’t weep for Devolder; I suspect his place in Flemish cycling lore is solid enough.
That said, the 2009 win ended up being his ceiling. Devolder, like the rest of us, set out to answer any questions people had in 2010 about how deserving a double-winner he was, and pretty much assured that we would keep asking these questions. He had a poor winter and spring leading into the race and Quick Step boss Patrick Lefevre went from gently chortling about his myriad options to openly questioning whether Devolder should see himself as a possible winner, given his lacking performance. He missed all the moves in E3 and Dwars, skipped Gent-Wevelgem (that was the year E3 and GW were on consecutive days), and did next to nothing at De Panne. All told, his 25th in Flanders that year was probably an upgrade on what his prior results foretold, but for a two-time winner it was as good as nowhere.
And frankly, this was Quick Step’s loss as much as Devolder’s. In the end Boonen was on his own to battle Cancellara, an enduring gift to cycling fans everywhere but hardly a page from the Lefevre book of taking away your rival’s strengths. This was your top guy, head-to-head, with his #1 threat doing what he likes to do best. Far from the checkmate approach the team had preferred, this was all risk, and it ended poorly for them.
From there, everyone needed a change, and it wasn’t going to be Boonen moving on. Devolder went and made stops with Vacansoleil, Radio Shack/Layopard/Trek and Verandas Willems, with his final year at Corendon helping out young van der Poel. In those teams, at least for a few years, he had a chance to ride for himself and prove that he could win outside the Quick Step matrix. But his best result was a hanging-around 13th in the 2015 Ronde.
So now Devolder goes on to a new career selling farm equipment, further reinforcing just how Flemish he really is. He departs as a quiet giant of the sport’s recent past, with nothing to disparage (save for having been a part of the Bruyneel Discovery teams but let’s move along). He will forever be a figure whose greatest moments can touch off a bar argument about as quickly as anything in his home region. And thankfully he didn’t tie Fiorenzo Magni’s record of three consecutive Flanders wins, for then we would really have a tricky task on our hands when trying to assess his career. But whatever you might say about those two wins, they’re his. And find practically any cyclist from that era save for the two greats and ask them, would they rather have played out their parts as Quick Step’s top rivals, forever under seige, or played a role as the winning rider in a team play about tactical strength? I bet I know the answer.