On September 14, RadioShack-Nissan announced that it had signed Stijn Devolder to a two-year contract. Ordinarily, a two-time Ronde van Vlaanderen winner would be a marquee signing for any team, but Devolder, a native of Kortrijk in the heart of Flemish classics country, doesn’t see his name in lights too often anymore.
The 33-year-old Belgian returns to the Johan Bruyneel fold after having ridden for U.S. Postal/Discovery from 2004 to 2007, during which he won the Driedaagse De Panne and the Belgian road title. His star was on the rise, and he won the Ronde twice with Quick Step in 2008 and 2009, but wasn’t offered a new contract after the 2010 season. The non-renewal was not a surprise; team boss Patrick Lefevere had repeatedly griped that Devolder only concentrated on the Ronde and pursued his own apparently ineffective training program rather than getting help from the team.
Lefevere was not alone in his concerns, and Devolder faced a poor market for his services. Up-and-coming Vacansoleil-DCM threw him a lifeline, but the faith of manager Hilaire Van der Schueren (a man who also rolled the dice on Frank Vandenbrouke and lost) was not rewarded. The team’s vocal frustration with the one-time contender’s two anonymous years filters all the way down to a sourly written profile on the team page, and the squad announced at mid-season that it would not be resigning him.
With that, Devolder looked on track to descend to one of Belgium’s bread-and-butter second division teams, but RadioShack appears to have jumped at the chance to keep him in the WorldTour. The question is, three years down the road from any significant performances, why?
He’s Dirk Demol’s pet project
The relationship between RadioShack classics director Dirk Demol and Devolder goes back to Devolder’s junior years, when Demol had not yet climbed the DS ranks and was still working with developing riders. Their close relationship continued through their years at U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel. If there were anyone that would offer Devolder one last chance in the WorldTour it was Demol, though Demol claims he approached Devolder at Bruyneel’s request.
Demol and Devolder went to Quick Step together for the 2008 season, and when Devolder delivered his first Ronde win, solo and wrapped in the Belgian champion’s colors, it looked like the right decision for both. But Demol returned to Bruyneel (by then at Astana) after only a year, with Lefevere noting with some regret that the 1988 Paris-Roubaix winner never really adapted to the way things worked in his team. Devolder delivered a surprising Ronde defense without Demol the following year, but has been adrift since.
Demol has always maintained that Devolder has all the talent he needs to win major classics, but that he doesn’t have the head. As far back as 2005, Demol told VeloNews, “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.”
Seven years later, Demol still considers himself the man that can master Devolder’s mind. And if he can bring Devolder back from three years in the wilderness, he may just prove it to everyone else.
He could be back in the role he plays best
Along with returning him to Demol and Bruyneel, Devolder’s RadioShack contract could return him to the role he always played best — that of the secondary threat. While they are career-making results, his Ronde wins were both made possible by being a key teammate of the strongest man in the race. Tom Boonen’s lengthy shadow in the 2008 and 2009 chase groups befuddled the competition just enough to give Devolder — no slouch against the clock — the room he needed to seal his victories. And though they lacked the cinematic dominance of his Mapei team’s 1996 sweep of the Roubaix podium, Devolder’s wins were the result of Lefevere’s well-worn strategy of putting forth a multi-pronged classics threat and valuing a team win over a star rider. It was a system that seemed to suit Devolder’s head as described by Demol, giving him the opportunity to win big races without the weight of leadership.
With RadioShack’s current roster, Devolder could well play the same role, this time in the service of Boonen’s classics nemesis, Fabian Cancellara. With Leopard and RadioShack, Cancellara has lacked that credible secondary threat, a teammate that could consistently make the final, go on the attack convincingly enough to take the pressure off Cancellara or, with Cancellara on the attack, make opponents think twice before bringing him to the front.
Without that support, Cancellara has been easily stifled in tactical battles in 2011 and during his abortive 2012 classics season, forced to rely instead on his considerable brute strength. Boonen, on the other hand, has two credible threats by his side in reliable Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel and the ascendant Nikki Terpstra. To have any chance of unseating the Omega Pharma juggernaut that steamrolled the 2012 classics, Cancellara needs someone to fill that role. If Demol can return Devolder to form, he could be that rider. And even if he can’t achieve the level of 2007 or 2008, even a Devolder-as-water-carrier could arguably strengthen RadioShack’s vulnerable cobbled classics squad.
All of the above assumes Cancellara’s presence at RadioShack next season, which until recently remained somewhat uncertain. With Bruyneel under pressure from his upcoming USADA arbitration hearing and Tyler Hamilton’s tell-all book, team doctor Pedro Celaya also implicated in both, and Fränk Schleck’s doping positive at the 2012 Tour de France, RadioShack-Nissan has the look of a team in trouble. And that’s before considering Andy Schleck’s virtually non-existent season after a back injury suffered at the Critérium du Dauphiné, public dust-ups over team selections, and rumors of rider non-payment and friction between ownership and management.
With Cancellara’s premium market value (riders who threaten victory in the spring’s cobbled classics, summer stage race time trials, and fall’s world championships are not easy to come by) and minimal ties to the Bruyneel structure (he only joined as a result of the Leopard–RadioShack merger), it seemed that if anyone could find a way off the listing ship, it was him. But as Swiss newspaper Blick reported on September 19, Cancellara’s attorneys scoured his contract from letterhead to signature but were unable to find an escape, and with a reported €2 million buyout clause, Cancellara has accepted his fate of remaining with RadioShack through 2013.
But back to Devolder. While its star classics attraction is apparently locked in, the team’s legal and other woes mean it will likely have a hard time attracting top talent to support him, and may even be in danger of losing supporting riders as transfer season draws to a close. And with Fränk Schleck likely to be suspended, Andy Schleck in suspended animation, and sprinter Daniele Bennati on his way to Saxo Bank, supporting Cancellara’s chances is all the more crucial to the team’s health. In that climate, Devolder becomes all the more appealing. While his Ronde trophies may be starting to tarnish, he has proven his ability as an asset at the very front of the races where Cancellara needs support, and in RadioShack’s current situation, they’re unlikely to have a shot at any other rider with his track record.
Devolder is a risk, but he’s a known one, and he’s also likely a bargain. When it comes down to it, the pairing is one that neither party is in any position to turn down.
Until the contract announcement from Cancellara’s camp, the Devolder signing also had the feel of a contingency plan. Had Cancellara found an out — or if the team’s troubles present one down the line — Devolder’s two Ronde titles would still allow RadioShack to pitch him as a classics contender, recent results be damned. It’s a privilege of palmarès, and riders like Vandenbrouke have long proven how far that privilege can be stretched.
Ryan Newill has contributed to VeloNews since 1999. You can follow him on Twitter at @SC_Cycling.