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After eight months away from racing, the 21-year-old dive-bombs straight into his first grand tour next month, and speculation swirls around what Belgium’s biggest star can do.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step officials, speaking with VeloNews on Friday, was quick to pour water on the growing hype. After recently handing Evenepoel a landmark long-term contract, the team is being careful to protect its investment.
“It will be very stupid to ask him to immediately be the leader of the team and screw him already in the first week,” sport director Klaas Lodewyck told VeloNews. “He just has to learn, it’s going to be his first grand tour. We just want to keep him quiet and see day by day how he feels.”
It’s been a long eight months for Evenepoel.
After his horror crash at Il Lombardia last summer, the young wolf spent months in rehab as he recovered from a shattered pelvis, and his return to the bike was plagued by lingering injuries.
Although Quick-Step insiders are confident his training numbers are returning to the level that saw him dominate his first 18 months in the WorldTour, they know that the demands of a grand tour debut makes for an altogether different set of goalposts.
“Slowly everything is coming back to good numbers,” Lodewyck said on a Skype call. “But we also need to see how his body will react to a three-week race. It’s not because numbers are going in the good direction in training that it’s they’re going to stay like that in a stage race. We all hope that he’s able to finish – that’s the main objective.”
Rewind eight months — and a string of GC victories at the Vuelta a San Juan, Volta ao Algarve and Tour of Poland — and Evenepoel was on the short-list of favorites for October’s Giro d’Italia.
After what he’s been through, hitting the finish line in Milano in May will taste as sweet as any podium prosecco.
“If it’s necessary for him [to withdraw early from the Giro], we’re not going to hesitate for one moment,” Lodewyck said. “But really, we hope we don’t have to do that because it’s crucial he can finish the Giro for his development. We all have our fingers crossed that he can finish, especially then towards the Olympics.”
Ever-ambitious Evenepoel slots the Olympic road race and time trial at the center of his ambitions for this season, and the Giro is merely a stepping stone along the way.
The opening-day 8.6km time trial in Torino offers the big motored wunderkind a goal, and after that, the team is prepared for any eventuality – whether that be racing for the podium, supporting team leader João Almeida, or merely battling the broom wagon.
“He’s going to have a free role,” Lodewyck said. “If we see after maybe 10 days that he’s growing into the race, and if he’s strong like we saw last year with Ineos and Tao Geoghegan Hart, he definitely could have that role as well. So we just have to keep him quiet and easy and see day by day.”
Remco Evenepoel’s ‘long winter’
The Giro’s opening time trial in Turin will mark the start of a whole new chapter for Evenepoel.
After a rapid return to training through last fall, Evenepoel had to take his foot off the gas at the start of this year as injuries continued to nag. The second restart proved successful, and Evenepoel now rides toward Turin with two altitude camps and a finishing block in the Ardennes in his legs.
Now, nobody knows what Evenepoel could do at his grand tour debut – even his team.
“He had to start from scratch after being in a bed for a very long time,” Loedewyck said. “He had to do everything that a normal rider does when he comes out of winter, only longer. He had three months to really build up so that’s why we’re all curious now to see how he goes, because it’s taken a long time since Lombardia with some ups and downs. But finally now we hope to see again a good Remco.”
Evenepoel had to endure months of seeing teammates harvest victories as he ground through his rehab, and saw a swathe of young stars light up the Giro d’Italia in his absence last fall. It would make for a stern test for any ambitious pro, let alone a youngster on the brink of the big time.
“For sure, he had his ups and downs, mentally. But like every big athlete, the moment everything goes to plan and they can do their training, they completely change and they are again a happy person. So for sure, it wasn’t his easiest period,” Lodewyck said.
“But I think now we have to focus again on the good side. He’s back on the bike, he’s feeling well, so now he has to enjoy being on the bike and being a professional bike rider again.”
Evenepoel has some 15 years of bike racing ahead of him. Grand tour trophies can wait – for now.