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Vuelta a Espana

Remco Evenepoel: Danger is around every corner in Vuelta a España final week

The Belgian is on course to become Belgium's first grand tour winner in over 40 years but he's still got a week of tricky stages to conquer.

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After a difficult couple of days in the mountains of southern Spain, Remco Evenepoel knows he must be prepared for anything as the Vuelta a España heads into its key final week.

The Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl rider goes into the last phase of the race with a 1:34 lead over Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and 2:01 on Enric Mas (Movistar). If he can hold onto the red jersey through to Madrid, he will become the first Belgian to win a grand tour since Johan de Muynck won the 1978 Giro d’Italia.

Evenepoel had been imperious over the first half of the Spanish grand tour, but the Belgian showed his first major cracks on a tough mountain doubleheader at the weekend, losing about a minute on his closest rivals. He blamed Saturday’s slowdown on the aftereffects of his crash the previous day and he knows that another fall could happen to anyone at any time.

“Danger is around every corner we could see yesterday as well. [Wilco] Kelderman had a bad crash and on the slippery roundabouts there were crashes,” Evenepoel said during a rest day press conference from his team hotel. “I think everybody is getting a bit scared of the roads here in the south of Spain. We are all going quite slow in the corners because it’s really slippery. It’s really dangerous and nobody wants to get out of the Vuelta in the last week because of a crash and it’s the same for me. Everything can still happen.”

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Despite his time losses, Evenepoel is still in a strong position. Having put in the big attacks earlier in the race, his tactics will now switch to holding onto what he already has rather than trying to build upon it.

“My only task is to follow [Roglič]. That’s the goal. But I think the fight for second place in the GC is going to be more open too. Because they are only 25 seconds away from each other,” he said. “Movistar needs the points, and second place in the GC compared to a third place in the GC is a lot of points difference. So it’s not only Primož, it’s also [Miguel Ángel] López, who was going really strong this weekend. We’ll see, but it’s not all about Jumbo and Roglič. It’s about all the whole top five of the GC in my eyes.

“I think the more stages I can finish in a defense mode without time loss, the better. And then it’s one big fight on Saturday.”

Going into the unknown

Evenepoel has never completed a grand tour, having abandoned in the final week of his debut at last year’s Giro d’Italia. He is well and truly heading into the unknown over the final week and his ability to hold on will also come down to how his body copes with the extra days of racing.

Going into the race, he and the team tried to play down his chances of a GC performance. Whether or not he keeps the race lead, he’s on course to securing a result that sets him on the path to becoming a top GC rider. And while he will fight for the victory, he says that dropping down a couple of places will still be a good result for him.

“We’re going to see day by day and never panic, even if I still would lose a bit of time,” he said. “Being in this situation, knowing this before the Vuelta I would have signed for it. So, I think everything that still happens now is extra. A stage win and a top 10 or top five would be my big dream, and I think we are ready well on the road for that big goal and dream.”

There were times during the opening stages of the Vuelta a España that Evenepoel looked nearly unbeatable. He ripped the legs off his rivals on the first major mountain stage up the Pico Jano and added more time a few days later on Les Praeres.

His time trial performance sent shockwaves through the bunch and surprised even Evenepoel himself. However, he had a scare just two days later when he slid out on a corner during stage 12. Though he brushed it off to keep with his rivals on the uphill finish of that stage, it left him struggling at the weekend.

“I had really stiff legs from the crash. It was the second day after the crash and I barely could stand up on the pedals and that’s what you need on steeper climbs, to stand up on the pedals to push the power. So I think Saturday was just a bit of all negative points coming together,” he explained. “It was it wasn’t the best situation but I think what we showed yesterday was really fighting back even though I still have some troubles in my leg from the crash. But today I have to say I almost feel no soreness anymore in my muscles so I’m really recovering from the pressure. So that’s really good news.”

Evenepoel gave away 48 seconds, plus some time bonuses to Roglič on the summit finish of stage 14. Though he struggled again the day after, he lost just 11 seconds to the Slovenian, though Mas was able to gain 32 seconds.

“When Mas attacked I knew I was still quite a bit ahead of him in a GC, so I didn’t want to go above my own limits because we were already above 2,000 meters of altitude. And what we could clearly see is that they took a gap but then I was keeping up my own pace.

“I just was a bit scared to go above my limits as well yesterday. That’s why I just kept pushing my own power. And I think overall on such a hard stage the time loss was quite limited. It’s now the third week – the guy with the best legs will probably be the best in the mountain stages but the growth is very far from over, that’s for sure.”