CompetitiveCyclist.com says, "What's more important than the Tour of Flanders? Nothing, nothing at all." It is a race with "ceaseless violence, causing the hardest of hard-men to reel."
The Tour of Flanders has long been known as one of the hardest races in all of cycling.
The Tour de France? With a strong team to help you, you really only need to exhaust yourself up a few of the key mountain stages and time trials, comprising barely a third of the total number of days in the event.
Milano-Sanremo, the challenging 300-kilometer Classic last month? It doesn't come close to the sheer brutality of the cobblestone climbs in Flanders with the gradients of walls. In fact, several of the famous climbs in this race, called Muurs, literally means "the wall."
There is no hiding in this race: either you are strong on the cobblestone climbs or you aren't. For this reason, the Belgian people and many others in Europe consider this, along with its cobble-stoned French counterpart, Paris-Roubaix, to be cycling's most demanding races.
One man, Stijn Devolder of team QuickStep, has proven for the second year in a row that he is cycling's strongest cobblestone rider by taking another victory in the 260-kilometer event.
His teammate Tom Boonen was viewed as the overwhelming favourite at the start of the race, having won the race twice in the past. The race, however, unfolded in a way that made it impossible for Boonen to win.
Throughout the race, the other big favourite, Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) heavily marked Boonen's wheel, described by Boonen at the end of the race as a "shadow." With an equally strong competitor following your every move, Boonen could not escape the group.
In the first hours of riding, the pace was extremely high before reaching the cobbled climbs, and it took a full 125 kilometers before a small group of Wim De Vocht (Vacansoleil), Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas), Sebastien Turgot (Bouygues Telecom) and Filip Meirhaeghe (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago) broke away.
The pack began ravanously reeling them in after the first few of almost 20 climbs in total.
Boonen and Pozzato put in an attack and distanced themselves from the peloton, looking like they could have made an advantage, but a lack of cooperation quickly brought the pack back on them as well.
Boonen's right-hand lieutenant Sylvain Chavanel then put in a counter-attack and with Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) gained 40 seconds on the peloton for himself.
This attack also proved to be futile. The next and final attack, though, was no joke.
In an almost carbon copy of last year's race, Stijn Devolder put in attack up the Muur de Gramont, about 20 kilometers from the finish line, dug in hard, and soloed to victory a minute ahead of the rest of the fragmented peloton.
Cervelo's Heinrich Haussler escaped from the peloton in the finale as well to garner second place, in what has been an exceptional season for the German rider who has captured several key placings at Milano-Sanremo and the Tour of Qatar. Silence Lotto's Phillipe Gilbert sprinted for third place.
The powerhouse QuickStep team played its multiple cards perfectly once again. With their main leader Tom Boonen unable to shake off his "shadow" and Chavanel unable to put in the perfect attack, Devolder was, for the second year in a row, allowed to leave Boonen behind and show off his form and talent in front of his Belgian people.
The Classics continue this week. On Wednesday is Gent-Wevelgum, a relatively flat but tough sprinters' classic. On Sunday April 12, though, is the ultimate monument-race of cycling, Paris-Roubaix. Defending champion Boonen will be putting all his cards on the line for third win at cycling's most challenging cobbled race.
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