Heads won’t spin as world of Remco Evenepoel keeps turning

The only way is up, one way or the other, as Evenepoel feels he's already answered the question of whether he's a rider for the Grand Tours.

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“Remco,” one Belgian reporter begins, proceeding to hurtle over words from the passenger seat of his car like he has 10 seconds to say them before the universe explodes.

“Yesterday you explained the key is to recuperate freshness. How will you do this? Is it sleeping more? Eating more? Reading a book? Meditating? What is the key?”

Evenepoel’s reply, delivered from the sunny patio of his team hotel on the second and final Vuelta rest day, is tongue in cheek.

“Keeping the press conference as short as possible.”

Even as the 22-year-old learns on the job how to ride and lead a Grand Tour with designs on winning the thing, some things stay the same. When a press conference comes around, and Evenepoel’s talents dictate that there are many, he rarely fails to entertain with a joke or soft, teasing jibe.

“No, it’s like you said,” he offers up the answer the reporter desires. “As you guys know yesterday was a burger and fries dinner with some ice cream so the calories came in quickly. When I’m done with my obligations I will go to my bed for the whole afternoon and I hope Danny has good hands for my massage.”

After two weeks of racing, things are now fairly simple for Evenepoel. Everyone is tired, focusing on recovery to improve their chances over the final stages. Most are battered and bruised, the combination of heat and fog helping saddle sores flourish.

But most importantly, the Belgian is 1 minute and 34 seconds ahead of Primož Roglič, a position he says if offered before the start in Utrecht he absolutely would have taken.

Even more simply, his task now over the final week of climbing and uphill finishes is to follow the Slovenian.

“The more stages I can finish in a defensive mode without time losses the better, and then it’s a big fight on Saturday,” Evenepoel says, ever the showman, casually setting out the Vuelta’s stall while picking at a blister on his hand. He has resolved to finally consider giving in and wearing mitts.

This past weekend was it’s own mini-saga amongst the larger tale of the 2022 Spanish Grand Tour. Evenepoel showed great maturity on Saturday in riding to his pace after being dropped by Roglič, limiting his losses well, and then not panicking when Enric Mas and Miguel Ángel López nipped off the front on the Sunday, Roglič this time looking on his limit.

“When Mas attacked yesterday I knew I was still quite a bit ahead of him in the GC so I didn’t want to go above my own limits at altitude,” Evenepoel explains. “Me keeping up my own pace didn’t really allow them to ride away. I just was a bit scared to go above my limits yesterday which is why I kept pushing my own power. The time loss was quite limited. It’s now the third week, the guy with the best legs will probably win but the Vuelta is far from over that’s for sure.”

It was this Sierra Nevada finish above 2,000m that Evenepoel says was the biggest learning point this race, proving to doubters that he could do it. “There were some attacks but it’s not like they embarrassed me, it’s not like I exploded.

“That was what I was scared of yesterday morning,” the main, elephant-in-the-room fear still being that he catches COVID between now and Madrid. “If I responded to an attack with high power then tried to find my pace [that] I would explode completely. That’s good for the future as well.”

For once, the insatiable Belgian media are focused on the present and not the future, at the prospect of a first Grand Tour winner from their country since 1978, a time before Ferrero Rocher chocolate, Honey Nut Cheerios or McDonald’s Happy Meals existed. On the flipside, Remco Evenepoel wasn’t alive to see the turn of the millenium.

“We still have six days to go, I don’t want to call myself [the winner] already,” the young rider quick to dampen brimming expectation. “I think for the head it’s best to try and stay calm and look at the races day-by-day and see what every day brings because as we can see last week a crash happens before you even know it.

“We had two big crashes, Julian [Alaphilippe] had to abandon but for me it was okay, some damage on my hip and my muscles. Never panic, even if I lose a bit of time because I think being in this situation before the Vuelta I would have signed for it. Everything that happens now is extra. Top 10 or top 5 would be my dream. We’re already on the way.”

Evenepoel doesn’t read or pay attention to what the media says about him, which is easier said than done when so many column inches are dedicated to him even when he’s not leading a Grand Tour.

“But Remco,” one journalist intercedes, “you must be aware that back in Belgium there is excitement, and things like extra episodes of Vive le vélo are being shown this third week.”

“Yeah I saw those guys at the Vuelta this morning,” Evenepoel admits, “so I know it’s going on but I have no time to watch TV, I won’t really ‘care’,” he puts in air quotes, “about what’s going on … but of course it’s really nice that things going on are getting attention because things like this are special and it gives me extra motivation.”

“3 … 2 … 1 … OK!” Quick-Step AlphaVinyl’s press officer counts down. Finally, the questions have run out.

By this time next week, Evenepoel hopes he will have answered most of the questions people had of him this Vuelta and whether he could take the red jersey to Madrid. Even if he does manage it, being Remco Evenepoel means that there will always, forever and ever, be more questions.

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