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What a week it was at the Volta ao Algarve.
His dominant time trial ride on stage 4 put him well clear at the front of the GC pack and he lost just nine seconds to the other major contenders on the Alto do Malhão on Sunday. Despite the small time loss, Evenepoel won the overall classification by more than a minute to Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates) and Daniel Martínez (Ineos Grenadiers).
Quick-Step’s good week was not just limited to the overall battle with Fabio Jakobsen scoring two sprint victories and the points classification.
There was a lot to digest at the 2022 Volta ao Algarve and these are four things we learned over the last week.
Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl has the perfect problem
Thumbs up, wave to the camera, job done. That was Fabio Jakobsen’s response as the television cameras panned alongside him on the final stage of the race. The Dutchman had just put in a huge turn on the front for teammate and eventual race winner Remco Evenepoel and those inconsequential hand gestures also summed up the week of racing for both the sprinter and his team.
Heading into the campaign, Jakobsen had been penciled in for the Tour de France, with Mark Cavendish set to be posted to the Giro d’Italia in May. Suddenly hashtag campaigns sprouted up with #[insert sprinter’s name] to the Tour depending on which side of the fence you sat.
We’ve recently learned that Patrick Lefevere doesn’t lose any sleep when it comes to what people on Twitter think but that hasn’t stopped the narrative from growing – especially when both sprinters have started the season in red hot form.
Jakobsen, for now, is still ahead of the pack with four sprints already and his path to the Tour looking unhindered. The only certainty, which was confirmed by Tom Steels at the race this week, is that the team will not bring two sprinters to the Tour, which means that Cavendish will either have to produce another miracle or Jakobsen will need to dramatically lose form or pick up an injury.
Internally though, Lefevere and his management team will be reveling in this position. They effectively have two world-class sprinters pushing each other to perfection and the main benefactor is the team and their sponsors as they reel off the ever-growing win tally.
Come late June, if both sprinters are firing on all cylinders, then maybe Lefevere will have a choice to make but what a wonderful choice, and what envy every other team boss will share as they gaze upon the Belgian team’s riches.
Evenepoel is showing patience in the face of his Giro hype, so let’s do the same
During the race, Tom Steels was also at pains to quell any early overexuberance around Remco Evenepoel and his Giro d’Italia hype. Last year, at the 22-year-old’s grand tour debut, the situation reached a fever pitch with the hopes and expectations of a nation resting on the young rider’s shoulders.
In the end, Evenepoel saw his race evaporate as first the gravel, then a crash and the general wear and tear of a three-week race finally caught up with him. This time around, expectations are somewhat lower, and while there won’t be the same number of time trial kilometers in Italy as there were here in Portugal, the consensus seems to be that Evenepoel could mount a genuine to the top five.
There is still a lot of road between now and Hungary and the start of the season’s first grand tour but what Algarve demonstrated – along with his might against the clock – was Evenepoel’s ever-increasing maturity to handle the big moments.
He raced within himself on the two summit finishes, marked the right wheels, and knew that whatever happened on the climbs he had his dominance against the clock to fall back on. It could be another year, maybe even two or three before we see the full extent of this man’s talents but it’s a fascinating journey to follow all the same.
McNulty’s stock continues to rise
At the conclusion of the time trial on stage 4, it was clear that all wasn’t well within the UAE camp. McNulty, typically a welcome talker to the press, rode straight to the bus with a soigneur later indicating that the American would not indulge with any post-stage press matter.
From his body language after he crossed the line, and a few words muttered under his breath, something was up, and whether that was down to equipment or pacing, it wasn’t quite clear.
A day later and McNulty was still disappointed by the result – although he indicated that the performance was decent – and he disclosed that work still needed to be done in terms of “dialing things up.”
Whether that would have meant he was closer to the win in Algarve is unclear but his overall ride during the five days suggested that the American should be taken seriously as a GC rider throughout this season.
He’s still young, he still has plenty to learn, but his improved strength and almost unspoken confidence are signs that Algarve could be the start of something special when it comes to his stage racing in 2022.
It’s clear that McNulty is in the best consistent form of his life, and while the time trial in Algarve left a tinge of frustration, this rider is a star in the making. His climbing was superb and there was no shame in being out-kicked by Sergio Higuita and Daniel Martínez on stage 5.
Next up is a date with Paris-Nice, where the time trialing will be a rather modest 13.4km, and McNulty will have the chance to lead the team into a WorldTour stage race.
Although the opposition in France will undoubtedly be superior, McNulty’s ever-improving stature means that he heads to the Race to the Sun with a genuine chance of at least making the podium. Patience, when it comes to equipment is never an easy trait for an athlete to exercise but it could be the final piece in the jigsaw at this point in McNulty’s blossoming career.
Ineos continues its transition
With Egan Bernal set to miss the Tour de France this year – or at the very least not reach his best by July – it’s unclear in which direction Dave Brailsford will point his Ineos Grenadiers armada when it comes to the biggest race in the world.
Richard Carapaz seems set to race the Giro d’Italia, while Geraint Thomas has played down his own Tour chances after a disrupted winter. It leaves the team with a Tour-shaped hole when it comes to contesting for the yellow jersey, and while the squad remains at the top of its game when it comes to mountain domestiques and experience, they lack a rider who can go toe-to-toe with Pogačar and Roglič.
That doesn’t mean that the team should forgo their GC DNA for an entire season when it comes to the Tour. If Thomas can remain upright and healthy, he could be a contender for the podium but the team is currently in a transitional phase and there is an argument to suggest that throwing in some of the kids now would pay off in the coming years.
Ethan Hayter hasn’t raced a grand tour yet but setting him on a path towards the grand départ would be an exciting shift for a team that doesn’t quite have a “plan A” for the yellow jersey.
Tom Pidcock [currently slated for the Giro], Michał Kwiatkowski, Adam Yates, and Daniel Martínez blowing the race apart on the flat and in the mountains would potentially bring a thrilling dynamic to the race and it would ease any pressure on Thomas to step up. The multi-pronged attack at last year’s race fell apart before Carapaz eventually salvaged a respectable result. It could be time to try something new.