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Bernal, Evenepoel, Sagan: Expectations mount on sport’s biggest stars at Vuelta a San Juan

Peter Sagan, Remco Evenepoel, Egan Bernal all have something to prove in 2023 – they'll be hoping to set the tone in their season debuts.

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Three of the sport’s biggest stars jetted into Argentina with equally big points to prove.

Next week’s Vuelta a San Juan will see world champion Remco Evenepoel, returning grand tour ace Egan Bernal, and fading force Peter Sagan looking to kickstart seasons loaded with expectation as they track their three very different career arcs.

Evenepoel wants to show he’s no one-hit wonder after a bombastic 2022. Bernal has big ambition for his comeback year after his potentially career-ending crash.

And Sagan? He’s got a handbrake turn to execute after seeing recent seasons derailed by COVID and made difficult by a new crop of fast, hungry riders of a similar mold.

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The San Juan tour returns Sunday for the first time since 2020 with a seven-stage race set to sting early season legs.

A centerpiece climb to the 2,600-meter Alto Colorado on stage 5 and a long, and lumpy rumble the day before, make for an altogether different proposition from the smooth roads and molehill climbs of Tour Down Under.

While a whole host of cycling celebrities flock to San Juan’s startline Sunday, all eyes will be on the 2020 defending champion and rainbow jersey-wearing Evenepoel in what will be his season debut.

“It’s our first time in Argentina in three years and we are happy to be back in this beautiful country. Remco won the last time we were here, and he now returns as world champion, ready to kick off a season that we all hope will deliver many great moments,” said Soudal Quick-Step sports director Davide Bramati.

Seems like a very long time since Evenepoel dominated the pre-pandemic San Juan. (Photo: Getty Images)

For musicians, the second album after a breakout debut is always the hardest.

Evenepoel shoulders a similar burden after he hit such a sweet song when he swept last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Vuelta a España, and world title.

The 22-year-old – who turns 23 on Wednesday – has a high-profile appointment at the Giro d’Italia this spring and is already touted as the top favorite.

Even the slightest shade of weakness next week will no doubt be analyzed, scrutinized, and overhyped by the baying Belgian media as it flashes forward to the thought of Evenepoel pulling on the Giro’s pink in May.

Bernal will be hoping to bump alongside Evenepoel in the GC standings of the Argentine season-opener.

Exactly 12 months after his horror training crash, the two-time grand tour winner is back and aiming for the sky.

After an uneven return to racing in late 2022, the Colombian has a load more training in his legs and the Tour de France in his sights as he looks to muscle back to the top of the grand tour hierarchy.

Bernal, shown here at last year’s Deutschland Tour, is dreaming of a Tour de France return in 2023. (Photo: Hendrik Schmidt Getty Images)

“I am truly motivated to race because training is one thing, but the races put everyone in their place,” Bernal told AS this week.“I’ve had a good winter, and the training’s gone well. Now I’m ready to measure myself against the others in the race.”

Bernal isn’t looking to ease himself back to his first grand tour since the 2021 Vuelta a España.

His return to the Tour de France for the first time since he blew out with back problems in 2020 will see him swinging against upper-echelon rivals Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard.

“The Tour de France is the number one objective, and depending how that goes, maybe the Vuelta a España,” Bernal said. “Now we are looking at going back to the Tour, not just to start, but to do as well as I can.”

The road between Argentina and the July Grand Départ is long. But Bernal is promising big things, and there’s no better time than his first race of the year to prove he can deliver.

And Sagan – remember him?

The Slovak fell off the back pretty hard in recent seasons.

He didn’t love the pandemic pause of 2020 and suffered a string of COVID infections through 2021 and 2022. After years as “king of the classics” and titan of the Tour’s green jersey, Sagan was relegated to spectator status while riders like Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel pillaged his pot of potential victories.

Also read: Sagan not talking about retirement

With just five WorldTour victories out of three seasons and in his contract year with TotalEnergies in 2023, Sagan needs to show he’s more than just a sponsor’s social media billboard and fast.

A victory next week would put a sheen on his 33rd birthday celebrations next Thursday, and set the tone for a make-or-break season for the Slovak crowd-pleaser.

Other headline riders to watch in the coming week include Miguel Ángel López (Medellin), Dani Martínez (Ineos Grenadiers), Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe), Fabio Jakobsen (Soudal QuickStep) and Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe).

Stay tuned to VeloNews from Sunday for all you need to know from the Argentine tour.