De Ronde: Impressions

The Textbook

Sometimes, no matter how correctly they’re executed, cycling tactics can make for a disappointing result – not just the riders, but for the fans as well. Witness Cadel Evans’(Silence-Lotto) win atop Mont Ventoux during Stage 4 of Paris-Nice this year. Evans earned his paycheck by shadowing Robert Gesink (Rabobank) up the Ventoux, a move intended to preserve his teammate's small gap to the lead. After having his nose up Gesink’s arse the entire climb, Evans still managed to smell the line well enough to jump around the young Dutchman for the win. You can’t blame Evans. Tactically, it was the right move, and any DS worth his salt would have your hide for not taking an opportunity to win on the Ventoux, no matter how you got there. But for spectators, it didn’t feel too good. It didn’t feel like the right guy won.

Not so on Sunday at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), where Quick.Step played the tactical game to perfection, and emerged with a deserving solo winner in Stijn Devolder. Other contenders knew what they were in for by the time the race hit the Koppenberg with 69 kilometers remaining. With so much of the race and 10 more climbs remaining, Devolder and teammate Tom Boonen didn’t try to get away, but their muscle flexing over the top of one of the course’s most challenging climbs told everyone that they were about to get the old “1-2” from the pair of Belgian strongmen.

As it turned out, they only got the “1” part of the 1-2, but they got it three times before finish. Just outside of Peter Van Petegem’s hometown of Brakel, Devolder joined Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) on an excursion on the Leberg. Then he stuck with it as that move morphed into one containing himself, Karsten Kroon (CSC), George Hincapie (High Road), Sebastian Langevelt (Rabobank), and Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) after the Berendries climb.

Of course, when you have an on-form Boonen riding shotgun in the group behind, you don’t have to do terribly much work in the break. The bit of extra rest let Devolder jump again just as the move was reabsorbed on the Eikenmolen, never to be seen again. Though he never got a huge gap (it topped out at around 30 seconds), the chase group of 24 or so riders could never quite work out how to get up to Devolder without taking Tornado Tom along with them. Devolder pounded away for the remaining 25 kilometers, mowing down the traditional stumbling blocks at the Kapelmuur and the Bosberg to roll in ahead of late escapees Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank).

In the end, Boonen’s presence behind made Devolder’s ride possible, but it was also clear that one of the strongest guys, if not the strongest guy in the race won. It felt right -- for fans, for the Belgian spectators, and certainly for Devolder. But, with Quick.Step’s tactics working in textbook fashion, I wonder how strong Boonen really was. Flecha mounted a very strong solo chase behind Devolder starting on the Kapelmuur and, for awhile, looked as if he might be successful on the run-in to Meerbeke, especially when he was joined by Nuyens. Both were certainly credible contenders for the victory. Flecha was well-supported by a super Oscar Freire and Langevelt throughout the race, and Nuyens had Brabantse Pijl and E3 Harelbeke winner Chavanel. If Boonen wasn't there to mark Flecha and Nuyens, who was he marking? So, when Flecha and Nuyens jumped away in the finale, did Boonen choose not to go with them, or was he unable to? Fortunately, Devolder is enough of an ox that it didn’t matter.

Demol’s Discovery

Devolder did look great, didn’t he? Crossing the line alone in the Belgian national championship kit – undoubtedly one of the most classic in the peloton? That sight reminded me of how, for years, Devolder never looked quite right in US Postal or Discovery Channel colors. Somehow, it didn’t quite fit him. Clearly, his current kit suits him just fine.

His victory in the Ronde has several news outlets chanting the same mantra – that Devolder has always been considered a stage race rider, rather than a classics rider. Perusing his palmares, you can certainly make that case, but I think it’s being overstated in most of the press. Why? Because anyone who has watched the guy go berserker in races like Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne over the last several years should know that, even if he didn’t have the head for the classics yet, he sure as hell had the legs.

One guy who always knew Devolder had the legs is Dirk Demol, who as director of the US Postal/Discovery classics squad brought Devolder over from the small Vlaanderen-T Interim squad. I had the good fortune of attending the Discovery launch in January 2005, and asked Demol about his young Belgian talent. Those who have plumbed the depths of this site will have seen this quote already, but it seems fitting to run it up the flagpole again. Said Demol:

“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.”
Even back then, Demol had it right in a lot of ways. But in winning the Ronde rather than the E3 to open up his classics palmares, I think Devolder may have surpassed even Demol’s expectations. Fortunately, the demise of Discovery didn’t mean that Demol had to miss out on Devolder’s breakout. The 1988 Paris-Roubaix winner is now a DS with Quick.Step.

Hincapie – New Clothes, New Man?

Has switching teams reinvigorated George Hincapie (High Road)?

As we discussed above, Quick.Step’s used some textbook tactics to win the Ronde, and given that team’s experience in the Belgian classics, they certainly have historical race knowledge on their side. But they’ve never been paralyzed by it. During his many years with US Postal/Discovery, it seemed that many times, Hincapie was waiting for the textbook or history to play out on the road. And when it didn’t, he couldn’t adapt to what was happening before his very eyes, which may account for why a rider as strong as Hincapie doesn’t have more classics wins on his palmares. There are certainly keys to winning races like the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, things that remain fairly consistent year after year, but there’s not a set playbook that you can plan your ride by and hope to win.

This year, Hincapie seemed more daring, going in a strong escape on the Berendries, far earlier than the textbook Ronde finale. He spotted a move that, with Devolder, Kroon, and Ballan, could well have gone the distance, and he jumped on it despite the fact that the traditional showdown on the Kapelmuur and Bosberg were still four hills away. That Hincapie was willing to take that risk is a small but promising sign for his season. The move didn’t work out, but he should take solace in the fact that he gave it a shot, it wasn’t any sort of mistake, and he still had the legs to fall into the chase group behind Devolder and pull out a fifth place finish at the line. Here’s hoping that he continues to race aggressively, and that he’ll be rewarded with results.

On a final Hincapie note, I’d advise anyone who wants to be a successful classics rider to ride at his side for a year or two. I don’t know that he’s out there at training camp handing out tips, but the results are undeniable. Just look at the list of ride-with-George alumni: Boonen, Devolder, Leif Hoste…

Ok, ok. There’s probably no causal relationship there, but it’s hard to deny that Demol lined up some good support for Hincapie during the US Postal/Discovery days, despite plenty of claims otherwise.

Slipstream – Too Slippery to See?

I’m not trying to pick on them, because I like what they’re doing, but it’s a good thing Slipstream already has its Tour de France ticket. They turned in what may be the most invisible race performance since, I don’t know, that French team sponsored by that company that rode the Tour like four years ago. Or maybe it was five years ago, and it was a Spanish team. Who cares.

Anyway, Slipstream is clearly built more for the stage races, and for classics season is far more likely placing its eggs in Magnus Backstedt’s basket for Paris-Roubaix, since he’s a proven winner there. But wow. I actually looked for their jerseys throughout the broadcast, and didn’t see a one. Apparently, Dutchman Martijn Maaskant came through for the squad by making the front group and finishing a respectable 12th. And in all fairness, they were no more invisible than Caisse d'Epargne and several other squads. With Paris-Roubaix being an ASO race, which the Ronde and Wednesday’s Gent-Wevelgem aren’t, look for Slipstream to bounce back and into the early break next Sunday.

The Broadcasting Note: Flanders Edition

Six minutes. That’s how long into the Versus broadcast it took Paul Sherwin to find an excuse to talk about Astana’s exclusion from ASO events. And that six minutes includes Sherwin and Phil Liggett’s stand up intro in the Bruges square and the standard Versus preamble of spinning freewheels, color-washed riders, and swoopy yellow lines they do at the start of each broadcast. So, really, it probably only took about three minutes of actual race commentary time for the subject to come up. The impetus in this case was Tomas Vaitkus (Astana) going to the front on the Oude Kwaremont climb. It would be the team’s most significant contribution of the day.

Really, as soon as you saw Vaitkus up there you knew Liggett would be off and running about exclusion and injustice and conspiracy. But Liggett was clearly off his game on Sunday, so Sherwin quickly cartwheel-roundoff-backhandspring-ed in to shake those Astana pom-poms. He did a credible job, but couldn’t quite muster the same level of indignant grumbling that Liggett can. I think it’s the age difference -- once Sherwin hits 50 or so it should come more naturally.

That Sherwin had to step in like that so early in the broadcast was a sign of things to come. Among the corrections that Sherwin had to make to Liggett’s commentary were that Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder actually ride for the same team (Quick.Step), a moment of confusion that made for some pretty strange tactical theorizing on Liggett’s part. Among the other slips that were left to run their course was Liggett getting confused about who was in the five-man break that formed after the Berendries, somehow mixing up Kroon (Dutch and CSC) with Flecha (Spanish and Rabobank). I think he was really just trying to mix up Flecha and teammate Sebastian Langeveld. But my favorite of the day was Liggett reading off the Belgian feed and bursting out with, “Ah, kop van der wedstrijd. French is such a beautiful language.” Kop van der wedstrijd, which appears in the corner of the screen to denote the first group or rider on the road, means “head of the course.” In Dutch. But yes, I suppose French is a beautiful language.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Liggett, and I certainly couldn’t do what he does. I’m hoping that he’s just dusting off the early-season cobwebs, and will be on peak form by the time we hit the Ardennes classics. And I’m hoping that, with appropriate counselling, both he and Sherwin will eventually be able to move on from the Astana situation.