Belgian champion Stijn Devolder finally answered his critics with a stylish victory in a rare snow-hit Tour of Flanders, held over 264km from Bruges to Ninove-Meerbeke on Sunday.
Cofidis rider Nick Nuyens finished second with Rabobank's Juan Antonio Flecha in third.
Devolder proved the wiliest rider throughout a day of drama-filled racing on the cobblestones and climbs which litter the race to claim his first ever victory on the 'Ronde'.
Predicted hail, wind and rain - and even snow - made a timely appearance, proving a major factor in 99 riders failing to finish and helping make the selections in the peloton which began at the Kwaremont climb, the fifth of 17 on Belgium's biggest one day race, situated at the 185km mark.
Devolder was initially primed to help team leader Tom Boonen claim a third victory here, but since 'Tornado Tom' appeared to be lacking the killer touch on a race he won in 2005 and 2006, Devolder decided to take things in hand. In the end, he transformed an outside shot at victory into a convincing win which gives the 'Ronde' trophy back to Belgium after Alessandro Ballan's victory for Italy last year.
"Attacking was my own initiative, there were no team instructions," insisted the softly-spoken Belgian, despite the rumour mill claiming that Boonen was miffed. "This is the race I've always dreamed of winning. To win here in Meerbeke, on my own like this and wearing the Belgian champion's jersey is just unimaginable."
Nasty rumours said Devolder was helped by the slipstream of Belgian television motorbikes, but he insisted the only motorbikes he could see were between him and Flecha.
"After the Bosberg (climb) I was afraid, I thought they would reel me in," said Devolder, who held a 20-sec lead on the chasers after the day's final climb but with still 15km to race.
"In the finale I couldn't see the riders behind me for the motorbikes behind me. And I didn't know they were only nine seconds behind me. If I'd known that, I think I would have panicked!"
A first major selection was made as early as the fifth climb at Kwaremont, prior to which Boonen, Cancellara, Ballan and most of the big favourites had the sense to sprint ahead to get in the best position possible. The race's second big selection at the feared Koppenberg climb then left a dozen riders to race ahead towards the Steenbeekdries. From then on, it was a fight for most just to stay in the race as the weather and cobbles took a costly toll.
Belgian Leif Hoste, a three-time runner-up, had been on the front from early on but his plans changed dramatically when he suffered a major mechanical problem.
"The gear system broke off of his bike," explained his team manager Hendrik Redant. "And we had car number 13 so it took us a while for us to get him a new bike. Then we raced about 50km to get in the front but once we got there Devolder was already gone."
Cancellara, a favourite after his victory at Milan-San Remo, was among the numerous CSC riders to suffer a rash of punctures and incidents that left them struggling from the word go. He was in a group with Boonen, Flecha, Nuyens and Italian Filippo Pozzato that had a 18-sec deficit to Devolder's five-strong lead group after the 13th climb at Valkenberg. It was barely 10km further on that Devolder went off on his own, and behind him the chase never really got going until it was too late.
Italian Alessandro Ballan, the winner in 2007, suggested Devolder had benefited from Boonen being back in the bunch to outfox them all.
"When he was in our little breakaway group, Devolder sat at the back doing none of the work for 15 kilometres," he said. "Then once we got caught, he attacked on his own. With Devolder up front, everyone sat looking at each other, with the result that we didn't collaborate to chase him down."
Devolder said his win would prove to Belgium, where he is criticised for allegedly not having any racing sense, that he is now the king of Flanders.
"I really don't care what people say about me, but whoever said that I've proved them wrong."
For full results, report and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com
© AFP 2008