The seats of Julian Alaphilippe and Pieter Serry go unfilled after COVID and crashes robbed Quick-Step of two key players. Remco Evenepoel is left with a motley quintet of climbers and rouleurs to help deliver Patrick Lefevere a long-awaited grand tour victory.
Does Evenepoel have the team to defend for nine more days?
“The team is motivated, all the riders did well, and are determined to continue in this vein, even if we are just in six, which is not easy when you look over the next stages,” team director Davide Bramati said Thursday.
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The Quick-Step crew sure doesn’t have the backing beef boasted by Evenepoel’s top rivals Primož Roglič and Enrica Mas. Robert Gesink, Rohan Dennis, José Joaquín Rojas and the retiring Alejandro Valverde bring world titles and decades of experience to Jumbo-Visma and Movistar.
So who are Ilan van Wilder, Louis Vervaeke, Fausto Masnada, Dries Devenyns and Remi Cavagna? And does it even matter?
“We are definitely not laying under the other teams, talking about climbing performances or climbing teams,” Evenepoel said after Quick-Step mounted the resistance required for a sixth day in red on Thursday’s 12th stage.
Loss of Alaphilippe hits hard
Cavagna, Masnda, Vervaeke, and Van Wilder pack grand tour stage victories and national titles but remain rookies in the wider scope of pro cycling.
Nineteen grand tour starts between the foursome lays bare the loss of 14th-year pro Serry and double world champ and yellow-jersey wearer Alaphilippe.
“It is just a stupid loss, it is a pity that we lose the world champion because he was in very good shape,” Evenepoel said when Alaphilippe crashed out this week. “But I have confidence in my other teammates as well that they will do very well for the coming weeks.”
Evenepoel cruised through another stage when he led home the GC pack atop the Peñas Blancas on Thursday.
Top climbers like Van Wilder and Masnada have the horsepower to help haul Evenepoel toward finishing summits.
But the frayed temper exposed in a descending crash Thursday and the fried legs that will come when the race dives deep into the third week requires cool minds and wise heads to keep the red jersey on Evenepoel’s still inexperienced shoulders.
Jumbo-Visma and Movistar showed Thursday they’re not racing for second place just yet. Twin mountaintop finishes Saturday and Sunday will see them battering at Evenepoel’s ramparts in what might be a make-or-break block of racing.
“We continue to race without pressure and do our own race because the Vuelta is still long and many things can happen,” Bramati said. “The jersey brings more confidence, the team has shown an amazing fighting spirit.”
‘We are not the only team that is losing guys’
Devenyns, 39, will have to bring all his grand tour brainpower to the Quick-Step team radio in the heat of two southern mountain stages this weekend, and the ambush territory outside of Madrid next week.
The Quick-Step team car brings collective experience from dozens of grand tours but it’s what happens on the road that decides.
Crashes, punctures, or a moment of mind-wondering make pace-setting teammates invaluable in the hurly-burly of grand tour racing.
But Evenepoel isn’t the only one racing light as the Vuelta rides toward Madrid.
“We are not the only team that is losing guys,” Evenepoel said after Alaphilippe crashed out. “It definitely makes it a less beautiful day than we expected. It is definitely a big loss for our team, especially on such a quiet stage.”
Roglič lost top wingman Sepp Kuss last weekend and big engine Edoardo Affini one day later. Mas lost budding rouleur Mathias Norsgaard the same day Affini made his exit.
An off-form Roglič needs Kuss’ climbing chops more than ever, and Mas’ pack of climbers will curse the loss of Norsgaard and his day-long pulling power.
‘He hasn’t shown any weakness’
They say bike racing is an individual sport won by many.
But does that even matter when Evenepoel is grinding the GC pack to powder?
“We know he’s tough and he hasn’t shown any weakness,” Mas said after Evenepoel powered away at the front of the pack Thursday. “The climb wasn’t that complicated. We have to get used to these kinds of drubbings in these finals. That’s the way he races and he’s looking good.”
But what happens if – or perhaps when – the wheels come off? No grand tour runs smooth, even for the most experienced.
Evenepoel never reached beyond 17 days of racing, and the Vuelta is notorious for springing nasty surprises and stirring drama late in the race – just ask Tom Dumoulin in 2015 or Miguel Ángel López last year.
Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl isn’t on the ropes just yet, but the time will inevitably come when Evenepoel and his surviving five are backed into a corner. Currently sitting on a near-three-minute advantage, it might be the one remaining intrigue in the race for the 2022 red jersey.