There’s something unprecedented going on right now that has nothing to do with COVID-19. Or, maybe it does a little bit, but in a good way.
Racing is back in Europe following the long coronavirus shutdown. And after a string of successful events on the men’s and women’s circuits, there is building optimism that quite a bit, if not all, of the revised racing calendar will unfold as hoped for. Teams and organizers are doing the right things, and despite a few hiccups out of the gate, the first few races have unfolded without major incident.
And out of that coronavirus haze has emerged two quite extraordinary winning streaks.
On the men’s side, Remco Evenepoel is three-for-three on stage-race starts so far in 2020. And in women’s racing, Annemiek Van Vleuten has won all five one-day road races that’s she’s started (six going back to the 2019 world road title she won).
Both are exceptional for each athlete’s personal journey, where they are in their respective careers, how their streaks started, and where they are headed for the remainder of 2020. And both streaks might continue for a while.
First, let’s talk about Evenepoel. At 20, he is proven to be an absolutely phenomenal racer who lives up to and exceeds the hype. Evenepoel is gregarious, outgoing and a natural when the TV cameras are turned on. The Belgian fans and media are correctly going gaga over him, and “Remco fever” is just starting to take grip.
In his rookie season in 2019, Evenepoel ripped the legs off the peloton on a few occasions, and proved he’s the real deal in time trials by taking silver in the world championship. But it’s been in the truncated 2020 racing season that Evenepoel’s starting to show off his stage racing chops.
So far, he’s three-for-three, winning twice before the shutdown, at the Tour de San Juan in Argentina, and the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal in February. He came back like a rocket, notching an even more important victory last week at the five-day Vuelta a Burgos in northern Spain. Unlike San Juan and Algarve, the Burgos tour included serious climbs and Tour de France-level climbers. Evenepoel said the Burgos win was the biggest of his career so far, simply because it was against such an elite field and that the race didn’t feature a TT, where he typically holds an advantage.
So how much longer could Evenepoel keep his stage-race streak going? It’s a stretch, but maybe all the way to the Giro d’Italia in October.
Up next is the Tour de Pologne, a five-stage WorldTour race running Wednesday through Sunday that fits Evenepoel like a glove. Like Burgos, the course doesn’t feature a time trial. And also like Burgos, he’ll be lining up against some top climbers, including Richard Carapaz (Ineos), Wout Poels (Bahrain-McLaren), Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana).
None of the big Tour “heavies” will be there, and the two hilltop finales in the Pologne route suit him well, so it’s very possible Evenepoel could finish back on top. Schachmann and Fulgsang will be his direct rivals. But in this strange season, desire and ambition could count as much as legs, and Evenepoel’s got that in spades.
Ahead of the race, however, Evenepoel downplayed his chances for Poland, saying that Il Lombardia on August 15 is his next big target, so we’ll see.
After some one-days — we’re not counting those for this streak consideration — Evenepoel will race next at Tirreno-Adriatico in September. The classic Italian route also suits Evenepoel, as he can handle both the explosive hilltop finales as well as the longer extended climbs. And in his corner is the final-day time trial.
With every race starting under the uncertainty of how future health conditions might be, every riders and team is taking each event as if it might be their last. So that means Evenepoel will keep racing to win all the way until the Giro. Could he even win the Giro in his grand tour debut? That’s a big ask even for Remco, but it’s not far-fetched that he could roll into Sicily unbeaten on the year.
And then there’s Van Vleuten, who is at the opposite end of her career compared to Evenepoel. While the Belgian youngster is still learning and evolving, Van Vleuten is at the absolute peak of her powers. Though there is some talk of retirement after this season, Van Vleuten is arguably at her best-ever level.
The Dutch star spent much of the winter at altitude, often training with the men’s team at stints on Spain’s Teide volcano. She won her only race before lockdown, taking a win in dramatic solo fashion at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to show off her new rainbow stripes.
If there was any doubt about how Van Vleuten would come out of lockdown, she has erased them with four seamless and equally dominant yet varied victories. She rode away from the field in three straight solo wins in the hilly country of northern Spain, leaving her rivals gasping in her wake.
Van Vleuten put an exclamation mark on her perfect record so far in 2020 last weekend on the sun-baked roads of Strade Bianche. In trademark style, she chased down a dangerous attack and finished alone in the photo. Mavi Garcia, the Spanish rider on Alé-BTC, is making headlines in Spain for almost beating Van Vleuten.
Team officials told VeloNews that’s she’s added GP Plouay to her schedule in late August ahead of La Course, two races she’s won in the past. She will also likely race the Dutch and European championships.
Her lone Achilles heel is her bunch sprint, so that’s why she’s always keen to drop her rivals before the line, and it’s in these upcoming races where she might not be able to have the climbs to drop everyone else.
With the Boels Ladies Tour canceled, her first stage race of the revised 2020 racing season will be the Giro d’Italia Internazionale Femminile, where she will start as two-time defending champion. After that, she’s slated to defend her world title and then race all the major one-days in September and October, including Flèche Wallonne Féminine (she’s never won with twice second), Liège-Bastogne-Liège (defending champion), Amstel Gold Race (runner-up last year), Ronde van Vlaanderen (a winner in 2011, runner-up last year), the debut edition of Paris-Roubaix, and the Certizit Madrid Challenge to close out the season in Spain.
How long can Van Vleuten keep winning? It’s crazy to say, but she could theoretically sweep the entire revised racing calendar. Except for bunch sprints, there isn’t any sort of race or terrain where she doesn’t excel. Her rivals, of course, will have something to say about that.
Van Vleuten’s 2020 streak might see its strongest resistance in her next few races. If she can keep it going into the Giro, defend her title there, who knows how long she could keep it rolling in the one-days?
So after four months of rather bleak news, isn’t it great to talk about bike racing and winning streaks? Evenepoel and Van Vleuten certainly think so.