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Giro d'Italia

Giro d’Italia: Remco Evenepoel slips back, but not out of pink jersey quest

Deceuninck-Quick-Step star limited losses but slipped off the virtual podium in a harsh day on the gravel roads of Tuscany.

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Remco Evenepoel learned one of cycling’s harsh lessons of grand tour racing Wednesday at the Giro d’Italia: an inch can turn into a mile at any moment.

The 22-year-old Belgian saw the elastic stretched on his Giro ambitions under a harsh pace set by arch-rival Ineos Grenadiers on the dusty roads of Tuscany in stage 11, but he didn’t entirely snap.

Evenepoel slid backwards against race leader Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) in the decisive stage that saw some other GC contenders lose even more time, dropping from second at 14 seconds back to seventh, now at 2:22.

“It wasn’t the best day for me,” Evenepoel said. “It’s the way my body reacted after 11 days of racing that came after so much time with no racing. It’s not a good result for me, but I’m still seventh in my first grand tour and remain confident, as there’s still a long way to go until Milano.”

The result was hardly what the Deceuninck-Quick-Step squad was hoping for, but Evenepoel’s teammate João Almeida provided key support to help limit the losses in the decisive final hour of racing.

“Almeida completely emptied himself to limit the losses,” sport director Klaus Lodewyck told Het Nieuwsblad. “It’s two minutes you’d rather not lose. I don’t want to speak of an ‘off’ day, because I think Remco was pretty good. These gravel roads are not his thing. In the end, he didn’t do too badly.”

Deceuninck-Quick-Step came into Wednesday’s stage quietly hoping Evenepoel could not only continue to stay with the top riders in what’s been an otherwise superb grand tour debut, but perhaps even take the pink jersey.

Also read: ‘It’s crazy what I am doing right now’

Those plans were quickly scuttled when the hilly route hit a series of four gravel sectors on the steep hill country in Italy’s Tuscany region. Ineos Grenadiers piled on, putting Gianni Moscon on the front with a pace that distanced such riders as Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Davide Formolo (UAE-Team Emirates).

Evenepoel also struggled but fought back on after being gapped once. On a steep sector with about 25km to go, the grand tour rookie couldn’t match the blistering pace set by the GC group.

There was confusion in the bunch after Evenepoel was gapped, and Almeida continued to ride with the favorites. It was unclear if there was a communication problem, but Evenepoel ripped his ear-piece out in frustration as the gap widened to nearly one minute.

Almeida eventually got the message and eased back to help pace his teammate. The Portuguese rider, fourth overall last year, buried himself to try in vain to regain contact with the leaders.

“We had hoped to finish closer and possibly take pink,” Lodewyck said. “You saw in the peloton that it would be a hell of a fight on those first gravel strips to sit in the front rows … Trying to encourage a rider on his limit, at a certain point, he has enough of that as well. It’s also his first grand tour, so you have to go day to day fighting on the edge.”

Bernal was pleased with the outcome, and he surged late from the GC group to distance all of his direct rivals. Of the top pink jersey contenders, Evenepoel was the one the Colombian was most worried about with the final-day time trial waiting in Milano.

Also read: How far can Remco go?

Overnight, Bernal said he’d want to expand his lead to more than one minute on Evenepoel to feel safe. On Wednesday’s thrilling day of racing, he doubled that and then some.

Lodewyck preferred to look at the positives. Evenepoel might have lost time, but he didn’t lose the Giro. Bernal now has a bigger gap, but Evenepoel is by far the best against the clock of anyone inside the top 10, and he’s only 1:10 behind new virtual third-place rider Damiano Caruso, at 1:12 back.

“We will have to take stock and reconsider our plans,” Lodewyck said. “Remco must recover and then we can look further ahead. A year ago, we saw that Remco lost time and few days later, turned things around.”

Racing grand tours is something very different than anything Evenepoel’s faced so far in his career.

Wednesday’s losses might be a blow to hopes for a surprise victory, but the podium is still within range.

If he can recover and ride well in the mountains looking in the north, his bumpy ride in Tuscany will soon be forgotten.