The Return of the Flandriens

The fact that American George Hincapie (Discovery) rode to a well-deserved win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday will no doubt dominate the pages of the American cycling press this week. Hincapie had vowed to ride more aggressively this year—abandoning his sometimes frustrating follow-the-moves, wait-and-see style—and followed through on his promise by spotting the right break at the right time and taking a two-up sprint over young Kevin Van Impe (Chocolate Jacques). As the only remaining member of the original 1997 US Postal squad that morphed into Discovery Channel this year, it seems right that the 31-year-old delivered the first victory to the squad’s new sponsor. It's certainly more interesting than their big purchase, Armstrong, taking the team’s first win and having to read a bad recap by some Washington Post stringer, who would really only tell us about LA’s six Tour wins and maybe something about cancer anyway. But now, for reliable George, the speculation will begin again, just like it did after his 2001 Gent-Wevelgem win—can he deliver a big one? Flanders? Roubaix? Dare we dream?

Of course, nobody knows if it will happen, this year or ever, not even George or Johan Bruyneel. But that won't stop the drawled-out, well-I’ll-tell-ya-what talk posing as informed debate on countless message boards, newsgroups, and Sunday group rides for the next month. Tyler Hamilton’s doping trial will put a dent in the chatter, of course, but after that weird and ugly debacle, damned if people aren’t going to be looking for hope. But enough about those vile things, needles and blood and all that. In the course of all that will-he-or-won't-he talk about Hincapie, his K-B-K ride, and their hopes for him, American cycling fans are in grave, insidious danger of missing the true big story of this past weekend--the emergence of a new generation of Flemish classics riders. The fact is, few probably realize how bleak things have been for the Belgian fans.

Let’s face it, the Belgians have a reputation in cycling. (Probably the only reputation they have for anything outside of the macho, testosterone-driven worlds of chocolate and beer brewing by holy men.) They’re tough, they ride well in wind, in rain, on cobblestones. In fact, it seems as though Belgium always had a stoic, stone-hard character or three who could come through over the kasselin to take the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, or Gent-Wevelgem, or anything else with lots of kilometers, poor conditions, and bad roads. But big wins have been thin for years. Recent results of the classics—cobbled and otherwise—are littered with Italians, Americans, Swedes, Danes, and, fergodssake, Spaniards. Blasphemy.

Peter Van Petegem’s 2003 Flanders-Roubaix double, in the context of current Flemish and Belgian cycling, was starting to look like a bit of a last gasp. The Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw, is retired now, his legend mired in suspect text messages about wasps and other mystery drugs. Van Petegem will be next to go—at 35 he’s taken over Museeuw’s elder statesman role in the Flandrian peloton, a deal that seemed sealed with their hand-holding across the line at the 2004 Paris-Roubaix (Van Petegem claims he would have sprinted it out for 5th, but deferred to Museeuw’s request for a show of mutual respect). Before Museeuw there was Van Hooydonck, before Van Hooydonck, there was Vanderaerden, the greater and lesser Planckaerts, Pollentier, DeMeyer, DeVlaeminck, Merckx, Van Looy, Van Steenbergen, Schotte…

But what now? After “de Leuw” and “de Peet,” things were looking pretty sparse. Mario Aerts (31) won Fleche Wallone for Lotto-Adecco in 2002 and promptly jumped ship to T-Mobile, where, like so many others, he languished for 2 years before going back to Davitamon-Lotto this year. Before that Fleche-Wallone, he won the 1996 GP Isbergues and 1997 Circuit Franco-Belge for Vlaanderen 2002, which helped land him a contract with Lotto, where he languished for 5 years before his Fleche win. In 2001, Rik Verbrugge (30) grabbed Fleche, the Criterium International, and the fastest Giro d’Italia prologue in history, and then…nothing…until he landed the GP Lugano in Switzerland on Saturday.

Then there’s Vandenbrouke, always Vandenbrouke, the prodigy who grabbed Paris-Nice and Gent-Wevelgem in 1998 and the GP D’Ouverture la Marseillaise, Het Volk, and Liege in 1999 before descending about five circles into what he tells us is some sort of personal and professional hell. Of course, somehow, year after year, he finds the inside of a courtroom and an employer or two. Now, at 30, it’s the modest Mr. Bookmaker squad, for whom he’s yet to make an appearance, but at least hasn’t committed a felony. Those in charge at Mr. Bookmaker shouldn’t feel too foolish when he finally cracks and mails them his jersey and half an unplucked chicken, though; Patrick Lefevre and Giancarlo Ferretti both bought his act in the recent past, and there’s worse company to be in.

Who else? Dave Bruylandts? Taking a couple years off after an EPO positive. Jo Planckaert? The same. Axel Merckx? Always a solid rider, but carrying hopes he could never live up to. Tom Steels? Still around, still constantly on the comeback trail, but like so many of the Belgian hopes, aging fast.

But of course, there’s Tom Boonen. A third at Roubiax in 2002 after working for Hincapie most of the race lit the khakis of the Belgian press afire, and he followed up with a what he seemed to know would be a quiet year learning under Lefevre and Museeuw at QuickStep-Davitamon in 2003. In 2004, he exploded, winning Gent-Wevelgem in apocalyptic conditions, the Grote Scheldeprijs, E3-Harelbeke, two Tour stages, two stages and the overall at the Tour of Picardie, the Memorial Rik Van Steenbergen, and 10 other victories. At the end of 2004, there were two directions to go---the 24-year-old could go on and live up to the heavy “next Museeuw” title the Belgian press hung on him in 2002, or go the Vandenbrouke route, crack under the pressure, and descend the professional ladder. He seems to have taken the former, and more importantly, he stands a chance at staying that course.

And here’s where we get back to the original point of this little missive—Boonen stands a better chance of not melting in the heat because, for the first time in recent history, he’ll be sharing the weight of his home country's hopes with a group of fellow young Belgians who are starting to prove they can live up to the Flandrian reputation.

At Het Volk on Saturday, Nick Nuyens, Boonen’s 24-year-old QuickStep teammate buried himself on more than one occasion to bring back dangerous moves—including one containing Hincapie, Van Petegem, and Hincapie’s young Belgian teammate Stijn Devolder. With around 18k remaining, Nuyens continued to work, jetting off the front to join old man Ludo Dierckxens and 26-year-old Belgian Johan Coenen (Mr. Bookmaker). Nuyens knew that the longer he could stay away, the better rested Boonen would be to take the sprint in Lokeren. And he was right, in a sense. Nuyens dropped his breakaway companions on the final cobbled sector, and rode in to a comfortable solo win, while Boonen took the field sprint for second place ahead of Dutchman Steven DeJongh (Rabobank).

In the week leading up to Het Volk, Boonen had already told Belgium’s Sportwereld newspaper that he considered another 25-year-old Belgian, the aforementioned Stijn Devolder, a favorite for the win. That was a pretty bold prediction, especially given that Devolder’s Discovery squad for Het Volk would include classics standouts like Hincapie, Viatcheslav Ekimov, and Max Van Heeswijk. Though he wasn’t exactly correct, Boonen’s estimate of Devolder’s strength was dead-on. Devolder was easily the most active rider throughout the race, putting in brutal attacks at every turn, chasing when it needed to be done, and singlehandedly stringing out the pack and various breakaway groups at every turn. Then he did it all again on Sunday at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, almost singlehandedly neutralizing Boonen in the latter stages of the race.

One man who wouldn’t be surprised is Dirk Demol, Discovery’s classics director. According to Demol, Devolder has always had the legs, it was only his head that needed to be put in order. At the Discovery team launch in January, he told me this about his relatively unheralded rider:

“He was one of the biggest talents in Belgium. Even when you talk about the debutantes, the juniors and the espoirs, when he was in good shape he was as strong as Tom Boonen was. He's a strong athlete, but mentally he's nowhere. When something goes a little bit wrong, he loses his morale and he goes nowhere.

When he came in the team I believed in him because before I came to the team I was working with young riders and he was one of my young riders, so I know him a little bit from that time. I saw him again doing big things in 2003, in a few races in the end of the season. That was for me the moment that showed me that I still believed in Stijn Devolder and his talents. Years ago, he was one of the biggest talents in Belgium. For a few years, it's been pretty quiet for him, but I'm sure he has the talent and he has the legs, he can do something. Let's give him a chance and let him work with us. He showed last year that he improved a lot, not with amazing results, but I can say I'm sure this guy is capable of winning races. When I talk about winning races I'm talking about races like the E3 Prijs Harelbeke. This guy in my eyes is capable of anything. He can win on his own, and as a teammate he's doing everything you tell him, if you tell him to pull, he just pulls, if you tell him to protect somebody, he protects, he does everything we want.”

Wise predictions, and Demol deserves to have people know how right he had it. In the space of two days, Devolder proved just about every sentence true. Now we just have to wait for Harelbeke.

Still another young Flemish rider, 23-year-old Kevin Van Impe of Chocolade Jacques (and cousin of the last Belgian Tour winner, Lucien Van Impe) also made a big impact over the weekend, initiating the winning break in the heated waning kilometers of K-B-K. Unfortunately for him, he was joined by Hincapie, who simply blew him away in a 200 meter dash to the line. But that’s OK—even with the famously harsh Belgian press, always on the lookout for the next Merckx, the next Museeuw. Because together with Boonen, Nuyens, Coenen, and Devolder, Van Impe stands a chance at reinvigorating the legacy of a region and a group of riders that know there’s more to life than the Tour de France. And the cycling world needs that. Badly.