Inside Pro Cycling | Devolder conquers the cobblestones again

A single Classics season can turn a cyclist’s wildest childhood dreams into a reality or cruelly dash them against the cold, hard cobblestones.

Only two races into the year’s famed series, the case is already the former, as Belgian Stijn Devolder, 29, has sealed his place in the history books and accomplished more in his young career than many have achieved in a lifetime, winning the Tour of Flanders for the second time.

With a solo victory under his belt from the 2008 edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, as the Tour is popularly known in Belgium, Devolder was certainly a favorite going into Sunday’s cobbled showdown. Fortunately for Devolder, he had both the confidence and the team to back him up.

Riding for team Quick Step, Devolder could not have been better-situated for success in the Ronde. At his side were French strongman Sylvain Chavanel and compatriot Tom Boonen, who also won the Ronde twice in a row in 2005 and 2006 and was just as heavily marked as Devolder on Sunday. Both Devolder and Boonen contributed enormously to the fierce pace, dealing a formidable two-pronged attack against opponents like the Italian Filippo Pozzato and the German Heinrich Haussler, who are no slouches either when it comes to the Classics. Despite the flying form that both the Italian and the German have displayed over the last few weeks, the Belgians ultimately prevailed.

Just as he did last year, Devolder made his decisive move on the Eikenmolen, a steep 610-meter hill that comes with 25 kilometers to go. Using the climb as a launching pad, Devolder rode away from the group containing the rest of the favorites and bridged up to an earlier two-man move containing his teammate Chavanel and Italian Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas). Then, with 16 km to go, Devolder went again on the infamous Mur de Grammont, dropping his companions and beginning what would prove his second ride to glory, eventually crossing the line one minute ahead of the 29-man group containing the rest of the favorites.

Devolder’s win could not have been more perfect. Not only is he a native Flandrian, making him a favorite with many of the fanatics that line the race’s streets, but he won in the courageous fashion that its history and fans demand.

First run in 1913, the Ronde is one of cycling’s most storied and epic races and easily the most esteemed race in Belgium. In addition to the list of all-stars that have gone to win the race in the past, the Ronde features one of the most challenging courses on the calendar. Over its roughly 260 km, the Ronde covers numerous cobbled sections and an array of painfully steep climbs.

These hellingen, as the climbs are known in Dutch, are what make the race. Not only are they often so steep that many riders have to walk their bikes up, but they also cover some of the worst-maintained roads imaginable. While some of the climbs are made of asphalt, many others are cobbled — and that does not mean the decorative kind people use for their driveways. These cobbles are sometimes widely spaced and uneven, making for a less-than-pleasant journey over them that is bone-jarring to say the least. And with 16 hellingen featured in the 2009 edition, surviving the Ronde, let alone winning it, is no easy task.

When Devolder made his decisive move on the Eikenmolen this year, he was already 234 kilometers into the race, and he had already covered 13 hellingen since the start. But that still left him with two of the race’s hardest walls to surmount as he powered his way to the line: Number 15, the Mur de Grammont, is a cobbled climb that features pitches as steep as 19.8 percent, and the Bosberg, the final climb of the day, spans 980 meters with an average gradient of 5.8 percent over cobbles once again. But none of this daunted Devolder.

With another running of the Ronde now complete, Devolder and the rest of the cobbled contenders have a week to recover before they cross paths once again — this time, at the queen of them all: Paris-Roubaix.

Not feared for its climbs, but instead for its innumerable cobbled sectors and often outrageously bad road conditions, Roubaix is the most highly prized of the one-day Classics.

Defending and two-time champion Boonen will be the heavy favorite once again, among many other strongmen who contested the Ronde, so he can definitely expect to be kept on a very short leash. While that hasn’t always stopped him in the past, it could very well open the door for an opportunist like Devolder to seize the day.

And with a win on Sunday’s cobbles, Devolder will most definitely make himself a permanent fixture in the cycling record books, going down as just the 10th rider ever to achieve the Flanders/Roubaix double. In fact, ironically, Boonen was the last person to do just that, in 2005.