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At 19, Remco Evenepoel is living up to the hype

At 19, Remco Evenepoel is one of the most versatile riders in the WorldTour. And he's living up to the enormous hype placed on him by the Belgian media

This winter, at the Deceuninck-Quick-Step training camp, dozens of journalists packed into a hotel along Spain’s coast. They were not there to see Philippe Gilbert or Elia Viviani.

Instead, everyone wanted to talk to Remco Evenepoel.

At the time, Evenepoel had yet to race his first professional race. There was no denying his magnetic draw, and the media was gleefully pitching him as the next big thing. And why not? Evenepoel dominated the UCI junior world championships in Innsbruck, winning the individual time trial before riding away from everyone to win the road race.

It has not taken long for the 19-year-old to live up to the hype in the professional ranks. After a string of promising results all spring, the precocious talent won his first professional stage race at the Baloise Tour of Belgium this past Sunday. Revealing a maturity and depth to match his skills, Evenepoel rode with the confidence of a seasoned veteran throughout the race. He won a stage, survived a crash, fended off a full-on attack from Lotto-Soudal, and then defended his lead in a time trial stage.

“This week has been a rollercoaster of emotions,” Evenepoel told journalists after his victory. “I remained calm at all time and overcame every hurdle.”

Evenepoel, who was already one of the youngest professionals ever when he signed with Deceuninck-Quick-Step last fall, became the youngest winner of the Belgian tour, a race that dates back more than a century. Some are already calling him the “mini-Merckx,” in a clear reference to Eddy Merckx.

No rider has created this much buzz in Belgium since Tom Boonen. Yet the media’s obsession for all things Evenepoel surpasses that of even Boonen at this tender age. The now-retired Boonen raced in relative calm during his late teens, eventually blossoming into a media sensation during his breakthrough ride at Paris-Roubaix in 2002 when he was 21.

“Remco fever” will only grow following his Belgian tour victory. Up next is a shot at the Belgian national championships, and then a break from racing. Team management has vowed not to pile too much on Evenepoel in his rookie season, and they said they’re viewing the first three years of his contract as a type of “cycling university.” If the first half of 2019 were his entrance exams, he’s passed them with flying colors.

“Let’s enjoy what he’s doing,” Deceuninck-Quick-Step sport director Klaas Lodewyck told Sporza over the weekend. “Everyone’s been patient with Remco, and even though he’s doing well, he still has two years of his ‘learning school.’ What he’s doing is exceptional, but the important thing is that he keep his feet on the ground.”

Riders are equally awestruck by the young man’s innate talents. En route to his first pro win in stage 2 at the Belgian tour, Evenepoel was in a two-man break with world hour-record holder Victor Campenaerts (Lotto-Soudal). Campenaerts crashed late in the stage, and Evenepoel won alone, but he left the race impressed.

“What he’s done at 19 is just incredible,” Campenaerts said. “I don’t know if I could have kept his wheel. I’ve never seen anything like it. What he’s doing is amazing, but also very frustrating.”

Everyone is watching Evenepoel’s every move. At 19, he is the first leading light among an inevitable new wave of young pros born in this century.

Many are impressed by his calm demeanor and his maturity beyond his years. Some have pointed out, however, that Evenepoel still has a few things to learn, especially about positioning in the bunch as well as a few tactical nuances. That’s expected, especially for someone who jumped from the junior ranks to the pros without honing their skills at the U-23 level. That move to the pro ranks was a big risk for everyone, but so far, Evenepoel’s legs have been silencing any critics.

The first hint of winning form before the Belgian tour came at the Hammer Series race earlier this month that he won in the Limburg region of the Netherlands. After an already impressive spring campaign that included fourth overall at the Tour of Turkey, Evenepoel was riding top pros off his wheel at the Velon-backed event.

Once at the Belgian tour, which included stages across the flats of Flanders as well as the hills of the Ardennes region, Evenepoel was strong in every aspect of the race. Granted, the top WorldTour pros were racing at the Critérium du Dauphiné or preparing for the Tour de Suisse, but to pull off the stage race victory at 19 reveals a lot not only about Evenepoel’s physical prowess but his character as well. Young pros can often crack under the pressure of leading a race, but Deceuninck-Quick-Step closed ranks around its rookie to deliver the victory. Evenepoel stood tall and brought home the win.

Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Belgium’s tenacious stage-hunter, posted a joke on Twitter this week that read: “Can all cyclists sign this petition to deny Mathieu van der Poel, Wout Van Aert and Remo Evenepoel access to road race for the following four years — thank you.”

Evenepoel’s rise is extraordinary by any measure. Though he was born into a cycling family — his father was a professional in the early 1990s — Evenepoel was first drawn to soccer. He reached a fairly high level as a youth player, but similar to Greg Van Avermaet, who also played soccer before turning to cycling, Evenepoel realized cycling was his true passion. Evenepoel didn’t even start racing until he was 15, but he quickly shot to the top of the hyper-competitive Belgian junior ranks. Evenepoel won more than half of all the races he started, and quickly reeled off titles at the regional, national, European and, last fall in Austria, world level. His double junior world road and time trial titles allowed him to bypass racing at the U23 level, and bolt straight to the WorldTour level.

That’s a huge step for any rider, even more so at 18, but Deceuninck-Quick-Step vow they are taking it slow with their young protégé.

“We have to be patient with him,” said team manager Patrick Lefevere earlier this season. “The media is all over him, but he handles it well. He is a strong character. He is confirming what we believed in him. The most important thing is to keep his feet on the ground.”

What’s next for Evenepoel? The team said earlier this season that there wouldn’t be a grand tour for him this season. A start at the Tour de l’Avenir is out of the cards because he’s racing on a WorldTour team. The future is nothing but an open road.

After winning the Belgian tour, Evenepoel knew exactly what he wanted to do.

“I’ll continue my build-up for my next two races, the time trial and road race at nationals,” he said. “Now I’m going home, and I want to enjoy some time with my family and have some pizza.”

Why not? After all, the kid’s only 19.