Evenepoel crossed the line alongside all the GC favorites at the end of stage 8 on Saturday and remains just 11-seconds back on race-leader Atilla Valter.
A tough mountain stage approaches Sunday, and it could mark the 21-year-old’s big opportunity to pounce on the pink jersey. However, for Evenepoel, just getting to Tuesday’s rest day after a sprint stage on Monday will seem like victory.
The grand tour debutant is beginning to feel the first glimmers of fatigue after a week of racing through harsh conditions.
“To be honest, the last two evenings I’ve felt quite tired,” he said ahead of the stage Saturday. “I think I am starting to feel the racing again after such a long break. But in three days there is a rest day, so the faster we get there, the better for me.”
Evenepoel will be entering new territory next week.
After never racing for longer than one week and coming directly off the back of a nine-month layoff, uncertainty swirls around how his form and recently recovered injuries will resist the strain of a three-week race.
Stage 9 could prove a make-or-break for Evenepoel.
The multi-mountain “Queen stage of the Apennines” looms on the horizon, packing some 3500 meters of climbing into just 160km.
Although Evenepoel suggested that he has been feeling the toll of the attritional opening phase of racing, the young ace has looked bulletproof so far, able to match the moves of Egan Bernal and Ineos Grenadiers on the summit finish Thursday and again in the final kick to the line Saturday.
Based on his bold, confident performance through the past week, the gravel summit finish at Campo Felice could see him move into the race lead. But even the slightest of cracks could see him shedding valuable seconds in the closely-packed GC battle.
He will start stage 9 just five seconds ahead of Bernal, with six more GC rivals less than 40 seconds behind the Colombian.
— Deceuninck-QuickStep (@deceuninck_qst) May 15, 2021
“It will be tougher Sunday,” Evenepoel said before the rollout Sunday. “Egan and Ineos have a plan for Sunday. Most of all, I’m just happy to be able to compete against them. It’s been a long time.”
Could Evenepoel be playing poker with his claims of fatigue and biding his time before punching into pink?
To shoulder the burden of protecting the race lead for two weeks would stretch even the most experienced of grand tour teams. And as Deceuninck-Quick-Step found out at last year’s Giro, it’s about finishing in the pink jersey rather than riding in it for 15 days before cracking at the last, as João Almeida did last fall.
“Ultimately, it is the person who will go home with the jersey on May 31 who wins,” Evenepoel said. “Crowing victory already is way too soon. I am just looking forward to the first day of rest, after which the Giro can really burst open.”
For Evenepoel to get to Tuesday’s rest day so soon after his career-threatening injuries would be an impressive feat. Based on his current form, don’t be surprised if he gets there wearing a pink jersey – whether he’s fatigued or not.