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“In the beginning I didn’t take him too seriously,” Gilbert said in an interview with Belgian daily HLN. “I thought he was a little crazy.”
The unlikely pair crossed swords at first when they were joined as teammates at Deceuninck-Quick-Step for 2019. Gilbert, 36 at the beginning of the 2019 season, was at the peak of his powers, already a world champion and soon to be a Paris-Roubaix winner. At 18, Evenepoel was a hyped sensation who vaulted straight from winning the junior world title to the WorldTour.
Today they get along well, so much so they were often roommates at the races, and Gilbert has since taken him under his wing. At first, it wasn’t like that. Gilbert revealed in the interview that Evenepoel was coming across as arrogant and brash to his new teammates.
“He would say things before the race, of which I thought, ‘Hey boy, what are you saying here? Calm down a little bit,'” Gilbert said. “He would do something here and then attack there. Arrogant, I thought! And then a few hours later, he would turn it into reality. Impressive.”
Next season, Gilbert is set to be Evenepoel’s rival with his three-year contract at Lotto-Soudal. After three big seasons at Quick-Step, which saw Gilbert revive his career with high-profile wins at Roubaix, Tour of Flanders as well as Amstel Gold Race, Gilbert could not resist the long-term contract offered from the Belgian rival team, where Gilbert raced from 2009-2011.
Gilbert leaves Quick-Step impressed by Evenepoel, who Gilbert agreed has a big future. Gilbert recounted how it was Evenepoel who helped try to tow him back to the front group when he crashed late in the world championships in Yorkshire in September. Evenepoel won silver in the elite men’s time trial race, and sacrificed his chances in the road race to help Gilbert.
“On paper, we had a team to win the rainbow jersey, but eventually we went home with nothing. It was a shame,” said Gilbert, who abandoned the worlds in tears. “The youngest of the [world’s] team had the class. He was the one who tried to pace me back. That’s also proof of his big potential. He thinks and acts tactically. What he did in Yorkshire was super-professional. It will help him in the future.”
Gilbert, however, wonders if Evenepoel can someday challenge for the Tour de France and the yellow jersey. Though he is the first to admire the young rider’s class and potential, he doubts Evenepoel will be able to hang in the Tour’s highest mountains with a new fleet of Colombian climbers led by Egan Bernal.
“He is already a world-class time trialist and he’s even better in the middle mountains,” Gilbert said. “I’d be amazed if he can defend himself against the Colombian climbers on the climbs higher than 2000m. I think they are the only ones who can hurt him there. Bernal in particular is phenomenal in that altitude.”
Gilbert said he is excited about returning to Lotto-Soudal, where he won some of his most important races. With the arrival of John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), coupled with the team’s deep Belgian roots, Gilbert should see the support he needs in the spring classics. He also confirmed his wish to win Milano-Sanremo, the only one of cycling’s five monuments that has so far eluded him.