07-10-2023 Giro Di Lombardia; 2023, Soudal - Quickstep; Evenepoel, Remco; Como;

Spin Cycle: Remco’s Time To Shine?

Written well before this month’s shocking Basque Country crash that affected numerous big name riders including Jonas Vingegaard, Jay Vine and Remco Evenepoel, Anthony Tan takes a look at Remco’s 2024 Tour de France hopes.

Nineteen years young when he made his World Tour debut, the results from his 2019 season could easily have been the palmarès of a top-20 pro in their pomp. Two general classification victories, five stage wins, a solo victory at the Clásica Ciclista San Sebastián (a one-day WorldTour race held a week after the Tour de France), and a silver medal in the time trial at the road world championships.

The question as to whether he needed a year or two as an espoir (Under-23) before joining the big boys was answered with an emphatic “Neen!”. (I’m showing off my rudimentary Flemish but that’s ‘No way, mate!’ in our lingo.)

The next year proved it was no fluke: four stage race wins from four attempts including overall victory at the World Tour-ranked Tour de Pologne. Sadly, disaster struck at the Giro di Lombardia on August 15 when descending the Muro di Sormano, colliding into a low wall and consequently being thrown off a bridge, where he landed some 30 metres – yes, 30 metres! – below. Diagnosed with a fractured pelvis and right lung contusion, it could have been so much worse. Not just career-ending, but life-ending.

Jumbo Visma are Remco’s main Tour de France threat, but one concern may be the time Jonas Vingegaard takes to recover and regain form after the unfortunate Basque Country mass crash.

Season 2021: With his first race back also his first Grand Tour, a semi-successful return at the Giro d’Italia where he stayed in the top 10 on GC for two weeks before a crash on the seventeenth stage. Nothing broken but enough to go home.

Did he just say that?

His focus turned to the Olympic Games and road worlds.

Ninth in the time trial in Tokyo and a TT bronze at the Worlds in Belgium were his best results – but the most talked about cycling personality became Mr. Did He Just Say That? when, on national television, he aired his grievances about riding for Wout van Aert in the road race: “(In the team meeting before the race) I said straight-out that I thought I might be able to win in a certain scenario. ‘Do I get a chance or not?’ I asked – ‘No’ was the answer.”

Strangely, days before Julian Alaphilippe won his second consecutive world title in Flanders, he responded to criticism from cycling great Eddy Merckx, who said he should not be included in the Belgium line-up because of his willingness to serve only himself. “I’m here to work for Belgium, for Wout (van Aert), because I know that it’s the chance of his life to be world champion. He’s in the form of his life, and it would be stupid of me to ride for myself. On this parcours, no one is stronger than Wout.”

24yo Remco in the climbers jersey at the Vuelta and (ABOVE) at altitude during the final Grand Tour of 2023.

Team-mate Jasper Stuyven best summed up the prevailing mood: “I think that Remco should sometimes be slowed down by his entourage. He still has to learn when he can and cannot say things.”

Walking the squawk

If 2021 was the year he talked the talk, 2022 was the year he walked the talk. (Or should that be squawk?) Four stage race wins including the Tour of Basque Country and La Vuelta a España (just his second Grand Tour), in Liège-Bastogne-Liège his first Monument, and at season’s end, an indisputably successful sojourn Down Under where he was crowned road world champion in Wollongong.

All accomplished before his 23rd birthday.

For Season 2023, the progression was set to continue leading to the Giro – which of course he was expected to win.

Overall victories at the UAE Tour and Catalunya, followed by a successful defence of his title in Liège, confirmed he was on track. Dutifully, he opened his Giro account with the opening stage and maglia rosa to boot. Three days in, he gave up pink to a breakaway rider but predictably got it back on the ninth stage time trial – and then contracted COVID…

Would he now ride the Tour de France?

The answer cometh a fortnight later: “Not this year.”

Explaining further, in a press conference before the start of the Tour de Suisse, one of two lead-up events to the Tour, he said: “You have to understand, I did six months of preparation for the Giro, and three months on a naked mountain (being Mount Teide in Tenerife), so I was in peak shape at the Giro.

“It is an option, but you guys (the media) would be sad about that. If I get dropped on the first mountain stage, it would be like a big bomb explosion in Belgium. It’s almost impossible (for me) to go to the Tour de France without expectations.”

To err is human

Instead, he chose to focus on the national championships, the Worlds time trial, and the Vuelta. National champs road race – tick. Worlds TT in Glasgow – tick.

La Vuelta… Well, given the lack of prep compared to his debut showing in 2022 or that year’s Giro, I’d say tick. No, he didn’t come close to winning (to everyone’s surprise including his own, American Sepp Kuss did that) but he won three stages – two in the third week following his implosion on the thirteenth stage to the Col du Tourmalet.

Perhaps most importantly, he found out what it’s like to be fallible. And rather than quitting like he could’ve done when all GC hope is gone, he hung around and showed the insatiable Belgian media, his team-mates, his sporting directors, his team manager, his coach, his family – and himself – that he’s got the qualities of a fighter, a champion; someone who doesn’t just say they can win, but can win.

Remco winning Stage 20 of the 2023 Vuelta. Image: Sirotti.

Last June when he made the decision not to ride the Tour, he said: “If I start the Tour de France, it’s all-in, I want to be at 150 per cent. It was just a logical decision not to take the start of the Tour.”

Fast forward six months to the Soudal Quick-Step team presentation on January 9 in Calpe, Spain, where his 2024 race schedule was laid bare and the answer is now different.

“It’s just time to ride the Tour. I will be 24 in two weeks. Every year you skip the Tour, there is one (year) less. I am now in my sixth year as a professional and it is time to discover the Tour.

“Mentally and physically, I am ready.”

Four big names, four big teams

I am, of course, referring to Belgian wunderkind Remco Evenepoel.

Upon hearing the worst-kept secret in cycling, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme couldn’t be happier. “Four different top names in four different teams is sparking a lot of enthusiasm,” he said, referring to Evenepoel, Jonas Vingegaard, Tadej Pogacar, and Primoz Roglic.

“And of the four, we know that we have two riders who can attack no matter where or when. I’m talking about Pogacar and Evenepoel, capable of opening up a gap wherever they are least expected. It’s nice to witness their audacity, compared to more thoughtful riders like Roglic and Vingegaard.”

With the atypical finish in Nice because of the Olympics in the French capital – and a time trial, no less – Prudhomme has been praying for a battle royale à la 1989 LeMond-Fignon since he took the helm of cycling’s blue riband event in 2007.

Remco Evenepoel winning the 2022 World Championships in Wollongong.

“I’m going to make Paris-Nice (in March) my first big goal,” Evenepoel said, where he will face-off against Roglic for the first time since the Slovenian switched teams to BORA -hansgrohe. Closer to Tour time, Evenepoel, Vingegaard and Roglic will meet at the Critérium du Dauphiné from June 2-9, while Pogacar, who is riding both the Giro and Tour this year, will not race in between the Grand Tours.

“The run-up to the Tour will be special. I will have to start there with a fresh head to overcome the hectic pace every day.”

And once at Le Tour, “at least one” stage win and a top five overall is what he’s aiming for. Bold, but not beyond him.

Netflix producers, pay attention – this could be the best series of ‘Tour de France: Unchained’ yet. unknown.gif


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