Belgium must be starving for a Tour de France champion. The cycling-crazy country hasn't seen one of their own on the top podium step in Paris since Lucien Van Impe in 1976. The indomitable Belgian Eddy Merckx won the Tour five times between 1969 and 1974, before retiring in 1978, the year Frenchman Bernard Hinault won his first of five. The Badger, as Hinault was called, was also the last Frenchman to win the Tour, in 1985.
Talk about a dry spell for two of the most cycling mad countries on the planet.
But despite this, Lance Armstrong, a man who knows what it takes to win the Tour, has bequeathed the top podium spot to former US Postal and Discovery Channel teammate, Belgian Stijn Devolder. Devolder, 28, is making his Tour debut this Saturday, and has shown flashes of general classification brilliance the past two seasons, winning the Tour of Flanders over teammate Tom Boonen and finishing strong in long time trials in the Vuelta and other big races.
Stijn Devolder (C) won the Tour of Belgium
"If I could pick one guy and say, 'Let's make this a project', I'd pick Stijn Devolder," Armstrong told me in April. "I think he can win the Tour some day. He can climb well enough, and he's lean, skinny, and can certainly time trial. Tactically, I don't know, it's a little different from winning the Tour of Flanders, but he's got a good team and smart guys around him, so that should work."
During Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong's stranglehold on the Tour from 1991 to 2005, Belgians were relegated to winning the occasional stage. Armstrong's director, Johan Bruyneel, wore yellow racing for ONCE in 1995, Indurain's last year dominating the Tour.
At the conclusion of the 2007 Tour, 13 of the top 25 were Spaniards, including winner Alberto Contador. The top Belgian? Axel Merckx, in 62nd place, a mere two hours and 21 minutes behind.
Tom Boonen (R) wears yellow during the 2006 Tour, next to fellow Belgian Axel Merckx
Tom Boonen is the last Belgian to wear yellow, sporting the maillot jaune for three stages early in the 2006 Tour. He won two stages and the green points leader competition, the first for Belgium since Eddy Planckaert's in 1988. Boonen, who won green in 2007, was banned from the 2008 Tour for an out-of-competition cocaine bust in early June.
In 2004, Belgian resident Robbie McEwen wore yellow for a stage, but he's Australian, so that's a stretch. Belgian Mario Aerts placed second in the 2002 King of the Mountain classifications, behind Frenchman Laurent Jalabert. Belgian Marc Wauters wore yellow after winning the second stage of the 2001 Tour.
According to Procycling's Bruce Hildenbrand, over the course of 95 Tours, more French riders - 82 - have worn the jersey than any country. Belgium has had 54 different riders in yellow, followed by Italy, with 23. French riders have won the Tour 36 times. Belgium is next with 18, and the United States is third with 10.
Eddy Merckx won five Tours and more than 524 races during his career
The most popular Belgian (yes, newbies, there was a more popular Belgian than Boonen at one time), was Eddy Merckx, who wore yellow for 96 days, winning 35 stages along the way. When not mistaken for a Brian Ferry body double, the ex-racer runs his bicycle factory in Meise.
So, can Devolder rise to the occasion in 2008? Possibly. His QuickStep team is strong, but maybe not as strong as CSC (Andy Schleck and Carlos Sastre), Silence-Lotto (Cadel Evans) or Columbia (Kim Kirchen) for the overall title. Greg LeMond proved he was capable of winning the Tour on his own in 1989, and it was his Team Z that propelled him to victory in 1990.
For now, it's an open race. I'd be pleased to see Devolder wear the yellow jersey in Paris someday, high-fiving Merckx and Van Impe on the Champs-Élysées. If his potential is realized in 2009, we may see the second coming of a Belgian superstar winning the Tour multiple times. And that, my Belgian-loving friends, would satisfy the hunger of every Walloonian and Flemish fan in the land of chocolate and beer.