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French champion Bernard Hinault has been in the headlines a lot lately as the cycling world celebrated the 40th anniversary of his historic Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory in blizzard conditions this past weekend.
Invited by the Belgian news outlet RTBF on Sunday, a day when the 106th edition of cycling’s oldest monument was canceled (at least temporarily) due to the coronavirus crisis, Hinault was happy to look back on one of his greatest victories. But the five-time Tour de France winner appeared to be equally entertained by the future generation of cyclists — most significantly Remco Evenepoel.
“Ah it’s going to be fabulous,” Hinault said of the long list of promising champions that included Mathieu van der Poel, Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Tadej Pogacar and Sergio Higuita. “It has been 40 years since we have seen so many great young riders coming up at the same time.”
Perhaps because he was speaking with the Belgian media, Hinault spoke most glowingly of Evenepoel.
“He is exceptional,” Hinault said. “When we see everything that he has done already in such a short career, it’s fantastic. You (i.e. Belgium) are really lucky! And if he continues likes this, without accidents or sickness, well your country is going to be really lucky!”
In Belgium, “Remco” is already a household name, and in a country still looking for a successor to Eddy Merckx, comparisons to Evenepoel are frequent.
“We can compare them, but to say that he is as strong as Merckx is something else,” Hinault analyzed. “But we can compare what Evenepoel is doing now to what Merckx did at the same age.”
In such comparisons, Evenepoel indeed holds up well. After all, in his first year as a professional, the 19-year-old won the Clasica San Sebastian as well as the European time trial title. Merckx was still an amateur at the same age. Merckx, born in 1945, also turned professional at the age of 19 with the Solo-Superia team, but won no major races that first year. The true Merckx legend, however, started in earnest in his second year, when still 20, he stormed to his first of seven victories in Milano-Sanremo. The rest, as we say, is history.
Evenepoel turned 20 in on the eve of the Vuelta a San Juan, in Argentina, this past January. And while he went on to win the early-season stage race, the season quickly came to a premature halt due to COVID-19.
Hinault does qualify his praise. “Careful, we have seen others that were completely overwhelmed, victims of depression, the workload, the presence of the media. Some completely exploded. But what I have seen in Evenepoel is that he has a solid head. I have seen him several times on television and he seems well-equipped to have a great career.”