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Evenepoel upping ante in sophomore season

The Belgian star has a full plate for 2020, with targets from the spring classics and Giro, to the Olympics and worlds

Two hours is a long time to talk, but it seemed like Remco Evenepoel could have kept going.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s teen-aged sensation patiently answered questions in French, Flemish, English and maybe a little Italian as dozens of media pressed in to hear his every word. Everyone wanted to know the same thing: can he top his breakout 2019 rookie season?

“I was surprised how I improved during the season and could learn from my lessons,” Evenepoel said. “Everyone expects more, more, more. It’s going to be difficult to reach a high level, but I am young, so we’ll see. I have big goals.”

With panache and maturity that defy his age, Evenepoel is taking stardom in stride. He exceeded expectations in 2019, and rather than shrink from the spotlight, he’s grabbing even more in his sophomore season. While many top pros might aim for one major target, Evenepoel is swinging for the fences with three peaks across the entire season.

What are they? Liège-Bastogne-Liège and what’s already been confirmed as his grand tour debut at the Giro d’Italia. Then it’s nothing less than the Olympic Games, where he hopes to be a medal contender in the time trial and perhaps the road race. And not wanting to let a chance pass him by, he’ll ramp up again for the world championships, where he’s hoping to better his silver medal time trial performance from Yorkshire, and then finish it off with the Giro di Lombardia.

Pressure? What pressure.

Evenepoel knows he has nothing to lose and quite a lot to gain, so he’s not holding back.

“I don’t like to talk about winning,” he said. “I’m just going to prepare myself the best possible way, try to be in the best shape, and then we’ll see. I’m ready for the start of the season and we will see what it will bring.”

What’s obvious is that Evenepoel is raising the bar in dramatic fashion in 2020. Though he raced a quality rookie schedule last year, this season sees the Belgian phenomenon hitting major WorldTour races across the entire season. Last year, it took him a few months to find his step, but by August, he was attacking with gusto, winning the Clásica San Sebastian and making a heroic attack in stage 2 at the Deutschland Tour in August. Both were long-distance attacks that put the peloton on notice.

“I’m still gonna be attacking,” he said. “I don’t think that’s my race style anymore [referring to his Deutschland solo attack]. If you want to win, you have to attack.”

Evenepoel is a quick student of the game. Quick-Step veterans Iljo Keisse and now former teammate Philippe Gilbert were important mentors in his rookie season. His big season helped convince the team that he’s ready to take on a much more demanding calendar for 2020 that includes the Ardennes and the Giro. Evenepoel said his wins at the Clásica and his time trial medals forever changed the trajectory of his career.

“No one really expected what happened last year,” he said. “I suffered a lot during the early months, but you learn a lot … It’s a hard lifestyle. We like to suffer, to be on the bike. We love the pain during the races and during training. It’s hard work and we like it.”

There’s already growing hype and speculation that Evenepoel will pick up where he left off, with his season debut at the Vuelta a San Juan coming a day after his 20th birthday later this month. Then it’s the Volta ao Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico before diving into the Ardennes classics.

Pundits are already suggesting he could win the pink jersey in the opening time trial in Budapest to start the Giro. And then it’s Tokyo, the worlds and Lombardia.

“I might not win even one race,” he said. “I will do my best during these three peak moments.”