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The 20-year-old started his sophomore year on a tear. He has already won both Vuelta a San Juan and Volta ao Algarve, backing up the potential he showed in 2019 with a debut stage race victory at Tour of Belgium, solo victory at Classica Ciclista San Sebastian, and second place in the world championships time trial.
Before the coronavirus pandemic swept through Europe, Evenepoel and his Deceuninck-Quick-Step team had mapped out a season that would have even the hardiest veterans wince. Before the early part of the season effectively shut down due to the increasingly worrisome health crisis, the Belgian hotshot was planning starts at the spring classics, Giro d’Italia, Olympic Games and Il Lombardia.
Does the 20-year old’s ambition outweigh his ability? If he can manage the workload, can he manage the media hype that accompanies it? Is he emotionally mature enough to take on so much, so young?
We media types can speculate from behind our laptops about Evenepoel’s future ‘til the cows come home. But the people with the best insight as to just what the 20-year-old Belgian can achieve are those inside the peloton. VeloNews spoke with a handful of riders and staffers at last month’s ill-fated UAE Tour about generation Z’s Eddy Merckx.
How far can he go?
The one thing that unites those inside the peloton is the feeling that Evenepoel’s potential knows no bounds having gotten into winning ways as early as his debut season, aged 19.
“I think last year everyone thought ‘he’s coming in, he’s a junior, we’ll see,’” said Larry Warbasse (AG2R-LaMondiale). “He was OK to start and everyone was like ‘oh, junior,’ and then all of a sudden, he wins Tour of Belgium and solos some stage, wins another race, and then goes and wins San Sebastian, I think everyone was like ‘oh shit, this guy’s legit.’”
Evenepoel initially became known for his chops against the clock, but as he revealed to James Startt, the youngster worked on his weight through the past winter and is now also holding his own on the climbs. His climbing legs salvaged his progression to the San Juan overall with a solo chase back on stage 5’s final climb, and allowed him to hold his own in stage 4 of the Vuelta ao Algarve to place third behind noted climbers Miguel Angel Lopez and Dan Martin on the steep final climb.
The latter result even surprised his Belgian teammate Pieter Serry. “What I can say about this guy is that he surprised at every tour he does, at every race he is still surprising,” Serry said. “I didn’t accept he can finish on an explosive climb, and he finished in third in Algarve. I was amazed.”
And while progressing as a climber, Evenepoel has lost none of his time trial prowess, beating world champion Rohan Dennis (Ineos) in the Portuguese race’s TT. As Warbasse succinctly puts it, “I don’t think anyone knows his limits, I don’t even think he does.”
However, with potential comes expectation; both from others and of himself. Australian veteran Adam Hansen (Lotto-Soudal) points out, “He could go anywhere – it’s more just if he can handle the pressure.”
How do you manage the public’s expectation and the personal ambition of a breakout star?
Although Evenepoel is clearly mature and grounded, to be thrown into the media cauldron so early into his career is something that may take some management from a wisened support network.
Having inked a deal with Deceuninck-Quick-Step through to 2023, Evenepoel is in the experienced hands of Patrick Lefevere, the team boss that has managed youngsters into breakout stars, most recently Julian Alaphilippe and Enric Mas.
“I’ve known Patrick for 30 years already and I know he’s good at managing young potential,” said Hendrik Redant, DS of NTT Pro Cycling. “I’m thinking at Quick-Step he’s in one of the best teams for managing that, so I don’t think it will be a problem. And I know Remco’s dad – he knows what he is doing. I think they will handle him fine, but it’s one of those tricky things that can exist, balancing giving him experience and exposure but not too much.”
Someone who sees first-hand just how much the media, fans and Belgian nation wants from Evenepoel is his team’s press officer, Phil Lowe.
“Remco gets a lot of media requests for sure,” said Lowe. “Obviously we’re aware of his age and that he’s only just starting his career. He gets the bulk of our requests for interviews and media. He always does his best to handle as much as he can but we need to almost stem that tide a bit, to manage him.”
Is Remco ready for a grand tour…. And is a grand tour ready for Remco?
Before the Giro D’Italia was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Evenepoel had planned to line up at the Italian race in May to start his first-ever grand tour. Although the Giro is now postponed, Evenepoel’s ambition to race a grand tour this year – no matter which one – could still be realized if the health crisis allays.
Redant leans toward a traditional view that a rider’s exposure to grand tour racing should be kept limited in their early years to prevent burnout.
“For sure he can start [a grand tour], it depends how he’s going and after 10-12 days you decide what you’re going to do with that,” Redant said. “The only problem with that is it that I’m sure he will go good, and it could be a problem that his morale is overgoing his potential – and you need to take care of that. They need to not put him into too much too young.”
However, with increasingly-sophisticated rider-support systems in place through the WorldTour, from psychologists to nutritionists and medics, recent years have shown that youth is no barrier to grand tour racing. Take Egan Bernal winning the Tour last year at 22 years of age last year, or then 20-year-old Tadej Pogacar placing third in the Vuelta a Espana just a few months later.
“I think there’s an old school train of thought, like you’ve gotta wait a few years before you can be a grand tour contender or even ride a grand tour at all,” Warbasse said. “Whether he [Evenepoel] competes for the overall? I wouldn’t rule him out for anything, but I could see him winning stages for sure.”
It’s clear Evenepoel has the motor to go three weeks, and likely has the structure around him to support that. The last wrinkle to iron may be the prolific youth’s expectation of himself.
“Well it will be interesting because all the races he does, he wins everything. And I think [a grand tour] might be a bit of an eye-opener.” said Hansen. “He has the potential to do really well but he can’t win everything in a tour. So I think it will be the first time when we come to the point where he won’t win so often – which might be hard for him to take mentally.”
Evenepoel off the bike – and how that may impact him on the bike
“I don’t feel pressure from the outside, and I don’t put pressure on myself,” Evenepoel told James Startt last month. From speaking with those inside the peloton at the UAE Tour, the rider’s statement seems more than just a well-rehearsed piece of media spiel.
“He’s so calm, very mature and easy to work with,” said Serry, who rode in support of Evenepoel when the then-19 year-old won the Tour of Belgium last year. “For his age its impressive how far he has gone already, and when I compare myself when I had his age it’s unbelievable.”
Redant, who raced with Evenepoel’s father Patrick in the 90s and still knows the Evenepoels personally, backs up Serry’s praise, saying, “From what I know of Remco, he’s very focussed, very driven, very motivated…older than his years.”
With that level of maturity comes an ability to say no and to understand when enough is enough. Evenepoel knows how to handle the media, and so too how to handle himself.
“There are times I can’t believe he’s 20 when he’s getting all this interest,” Lowe said. “He handles it all really well, certainly better than I would have when I was 20. There are times with media on in press days when he’s clearly very tired and has to turn something down, it’s all ‘please’ and ‘thank yous.’”
A legend now… and a legend for the future?
“I think, if we have in Belgium, one guy who can win the Tour in the future, I think it will be Remco,” Serry said. “In Belgium, he is already a legend.”
Belgium has produced a glut of classics and sprint stars in recent decades, from Tom Boonen through Philipe Gilbert and Wout van Aert. Now it has a talent that may be able to do it all.
“If he stays healthy he could be the future Merckx,” Redant said.
A star was born in 2019, and the next 12 months could prove telling in whether it becomes supernova.