Evenepoel all but sealed the Vuelta a España when he marked and matched his GC rivals on stage 20 on Saturday, rubberstamping his place in red jersey history ahead of Sunday’s Madrid sprint.
The 22-year-old was faultless when isolated and stretched Saturday, completing an imperious ride through the past three weeks.
Evenepoel swatted aside Enric Mas and Movistar, scored two stage wins, and brushed off a confidence-knocking day on Pandera to lead the race from stage 6 all the way through Madrid.
“I only had one bad day but that was because of my crash, two days after my crash I felt really bad with sore muscles. Maybe without that I wouldn’t have had any bad day or time losses,” Evenepoel said in his press conference Saturday.
“But that’s a grand tour, you need to stay on your bike … Otherwise, pure power and shape-wise I didn’t have any bad days.”
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Belgium has its long-awaited grand tour title and Quick-Step broke its mold of classics-munchers and bunch sprint hunters.
Evenepoel will win the Vuelta on Sunday, adding weight to a trophy cabinet that already includes silverwear from victories at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, twice Donostia San Sebastian Klasikoa, and a streak of stage races.
So is this the start of a long “reign of Remco”?
Racing without Roglič
At just 22 years old, Evenepoel is younger than double Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and their greatest grand tour rivals Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers).
The Belgian’s Vuelta victory came later in life than Pogačar’s breakout third place in the 2019 Vuelta and debut Tour de France triumph, but comes in the context of a crash that nearly ended his career two summers ago.
Whichever way it crumbles, Evenepoel has arrived on the three-week scene and has a decade in which to duel with his fellow Gen-Z grand tour-gobblers.
But like the 2020 Giro, this year’s Vuelta will be shrouded in suggestions about start lists weakened by point-hunting objectives elsewhere in the calendar and decimated by COVID and crashes through its course.
Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) left the race after stage 10 and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) succumbed to injury one week later. Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) barely broke out of GC first-gear and pivoted to polka dots, and Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) was way behind Giro form.
Evenepoel had no established champion to contend.
“For sure it’s a pity he was not there, everybody knows Primož is one of the best riders in the world. To say that it was not easy, that’s not true,” Evenepoel retaliated Saturday.
“You always have to push you always need the legs, Enric Mas is one of the best climbers in the world. He was already fifth in the Tour and now this is I think his third time second in the Vuelta. He’s one of the best WorldTour riders.”
Yet in turn, the Quick-Step captain rode beyond his inexperience and breezed into GC captaincy with confidence.
The fourth-year-pro didn’t look like a youngster sniped from soccer and was as imperious in his power as he was in his poise when the GC attacks rained down in the final week and on the race’s concluding climb to Puerto de Navacerrada.
“This final classification is my most beautiful victory. But in terms of at this Vuelta, my best performance was on Pico Jano when I took the red jersey and on stage 9 on Les Praeres,” Evenepoel said of a near-inch perfect three weeks.
“And my time trial was not too bad, eh,” he added with a joke, referring to his crushing win against the clock in Alicante.
A grand tour future?
Evenepoel’s next grand tour will paint the picture for the future.
Hindley was seen as a one-off after placing second in the off-kilter pandemic-edition Giro but bounded back to reclaim the maglia rosa he lost in 2020.
Evenepoel hailed the red jersey the greatest achievement of his career and its hard to see him not wanting to stretch his legs deep into grand tour racing in 2023. He’s still not started the Tour de France and has a chapter to close after his rollercoaster Giro last year.
Team chief Patrick Lefevere will need to adapt around Evenepoel’s ambitions as he looks forward to four more years with his new hero.
Quick-Step’s assorted artillery of cobble-bashers and bunch-sprinters doesn’t have the grand tour depth of a full-force Jumbo-Visma, UAE Emirates or Ineos Grenadiers.
Lefevere’s leading “wolfcub” barely broke a sweat through this Vuelta but will see a far stronger challenge in a full field at the Tour de France.
And though Jan Hirt will bring more climbing power to Quick-Step in 2023, a sprinter swap between Mark Cavendish and Tim Merlier means the team will still be seen in bunch kicks and splitting grand tour calendars accordingly.
How far Evenepoel goes, nobody knows.
Sunday could mark the start of Remco’s reign or it could be a brief Belgian splash in the big mountains. But for now, it’s hard not to relish the prospect of a new rival for Pogačar, Vingegaard and Bernal for some time to come.