How far can Remco go? It’s the question on everyone’s lips at the Giro d’Italia.
Currently sitting second on GC after blitzing through a gritty slate of opening stages, Remco Evenepoel is a top contender for the race’s pink jersey.
Whether sprinting for bonus seconds or grinding out gravel ascents, Evenepoel has gone shoulder-to-shoulder with Tour de France champ Egan Bernal for every second the race has been rolling. But with the high mountains on the horizon, the hard stuff is just about to begin – and for all the world knows, the grand tour rookie could crumble at any moment.
- Evenepoel: ‘It’s crazy what I am doing at the Giro d’Italia’
- Deceuninck-Quick-Step on Evenepoel: ‘We hope he is able to finish this Giro’
No grand tour experience, and nine months out of racing see Evenepoel toeing his way down a tightrope in Italy.
“His numbers in training show that he is in good shape and ready to race,” Evenepoel’s coach Koen Pelgrim said. “We know his data and can compare it with the past – but we have to see how it holds in a race. Racing is different from training. This is also his first grand tour, so no comparison is possible there. Where will he be after three weeks, not only physically, but also mentally and technically?”
We all know the story. A terrible Lombardia crash, a broken hip, months in rehab, and a parachute dive into the Giro d’Italia. That he now sits just 14 seconds back on Bernal after 10 days is some feat.
“It’s crazy that I’m up there with the best climbers after three months of training and six or seven months of nothing. It’s amazing what I’m doing right now,” Evenepoel said on the rest day Tuesday.
But even the ever-swaggering, seemingly bulletproof 21-year-old admitted that his race could tilt on its head in the then back-half of the race.
“For now everything is going well, but after nine months without racing, I can’t predict how I will feel.”
Training to race or racing to race?
How far can a rider get into a grand tour with no racing in their legs?
It’s unchartered territory.
For decades, a grand tour competitor follows a well-worn path. Early season stage-races and altitude camps build the base, some final tune-up competitions buff polish things up to perfection.
But teams are starting to believe there’s a new route.
Jumbo-Visma confirmed last month that Primož Roglič would bypass any preparatory stage races before he makes a tilt at the Tour de France’s yellow jersey. Similarly, Bernal didn’t race for eight weeks before rolling down the start ramp in Turin earlier this month.
With the understanding of how to fine-tune a rider’s form to the half-watt and groom their form to peak to within the day, Roglič’s coach Mathieu Heijboer suggested the old template no longer stands.
“With the work we do with our riders, we know that we can prepare a grand tour without racing,” Heijboer told VeloNews.
“The advantage of just doing training sessions is that we are able to control the volume and the intensity. We can exactly pick very well the intensities that we want to hit, and we can monitor and control everything.
“We know just from climbing times and power data more or less what will be required in a race, and we can mimic that in training.”
While Quick-Step staffers didn’t have the bank of data and racing metrics to inform Evenepoel’s preparation for the Giro, the consensus is that “racing to race” is no longer a necessity.
Once back in the saddle at the start of this year, Evenepoel went on a three-month cycling boot camp, first spending time in the thin air of Tenerife and Sierra Nevada before making the finishing touches in the Belgian Ardennes through late April.
Will the science translate into real-world winning?
There’s a lot pointing in Evenepoel’s favor.
You don’t get any fresher than a nine-month break from racing, and the past 10 days in Italy could have served to make Evenepoel only stronger.
And with only one uninterrupted season of WorldTour racing, Evenepoel’s engine is stacked full of fuel and ready to race.
Look at what Tadej Pogačar did at the 2019 Vuelta a España. At that time the Slovenian supremo was only 20 years old and still in his rookie season, and he improved with every day of his grand tour debut – to the point that he won three stages in the second half of the race and finished third overall.
And while Deceuninck-Quick-Step has never made grand tour racing its raison d’etre in the way that Sky/Ineos and Jumbo-Visma has, it has very fresh memories of how to handle a grand tour rookie with GC ambitions. João Almeida’s exploits in Italy last fall made for a masterclass in holding the pink jersey on all the days it mattered least, with the 22-year-old crumbling with fatigue and fallibility in the mountains in the final few stages. Lessons like that don’t get forgotten.
Where raw talent meets training science
The question hanging over Evenepoel’s endurance adds an X-factor to this year’s Giro.
It currently seems just as possible that the young Belgian could rip this Giro race apart with a Chris Froome-esque multi-mountain solo break as it does that he could be blown out of the back, the Simon Yates to Froome’s epic 2018 escape.
Could Evenepoel’s raw talent see him through? When in top shape through early 2020, he was hailed as a one-in-a-million, a physiological anomaly.
Roglič’s coach is of a similar opinion.
“He’s not a rider I train, but it’s clear that he’s an incredible talent,” Heijboer said.
“And he’s had a pretty long period of training, I saw him in Tenerife in March I was there also – so he has had a lot of training time.
“Combine that long training period with the incredible talent he has, and I’m confident that he can hold it for three weeks.”
For Evenpoel to even complete his first grand tour after such a turbulent build-up will be a result in itself. But heading into stage 11 Wednesday, it looks like he might even go and win the thing.