Fabian Cancellara was among the big name favourites for the Tour of Flanders crown left regretting the harsh conditions and race tactics which produced a surprise winner in Ninove-Meerbeke on Sunday.
The Swiss ace came into the race as a big favourite after a commanding performance in the Italian one-day classic Milan-San Remo a fortnight ago, won shortly after he had triumphed at the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race.
But over a snow and rain-hit 264 km course, littered with cobblestones and 17 small climbs that gave the peloton its toughest test of the year, Cancellara was among the big names who failed to make the podium.
Belgian champion Stijn Devolder was first over the finish line, with a 15sec lead on Cofidis rider Nick Nuyens and Rabobank's Spanish ace Juan Antonio Flecha, in third. Devolder's win gave his Quick Step team a welcome trophy after a relatively barren season so far, although there was post-race speculation that his team-mate Tom Boonen, a two-time winner, was slightly miffed.
"I had the legs to win the race, but the tactics in the race prevented me from showing that," said Boonen. "He (Devolder) was supposed to serve as a launchpad for me, but the way things developed meant the whole scenario changed."
Cancellara's CSC team experienced enough technical and physical mishaps to last them the entire season. But ultimately he admitted it was simply not his day.
"It's difficult to go into races defending the notion that you're the big favourite," said the Swiss, a two-time world time trial champion and former winner of the notorious Paris-Roubaix one-day classic. "But I'm not a machine. I gave it everything I had, and at the end I didn't win but that's the way it is."
Cancellara saw his victory chances evaporate when unfancied Devolder, despite being the Belgian champion, decided not to wait for his team-mate Boonen, a pre-race favourite, to close the gap to the small leading group he had been in the latter stages. With 26km to go Devolder went off on his own, and promptly secured a first memorable win on the 'Ronde'.
Cancellara produced a similar move to win in San Remo, but as well as being demoralised by his team's numerous punctures and crashes, the Swiss admitted that having Boonen behind him and Devolder up front had left him undecided as to which tactic to use.
"In the finale Devolder was up ahead while Boonen had stayed back. It was a bit of a lottery. And everyone was watching me, waiting for me to go on the attack," added the Swiss. "In Milan San Remo I took my own initiative, and it worked for me. Today it didn't. But I'll take the experience from today and hope it serves me well for the next time."
Italian Alessandro Ballan, the winner in 2007, suggested Devolder had outfoxed them all. "When he was in our little breakaway group, Devolder sat at the back doing none of the work for 15 kilometres," said the Lampre rider, who finished fourth.
"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."
© AFP 2008