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Cycling’s king Eddy Merckx is lavishing praise on 19-year-old Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quick Step) for becoming the youngest classics winner in the modern era, saying “maybe he could even be better than me.”
Evenepoel, born January 25, 2000, won the Clásica San Sebastián Saturday with a solo attack with 8.7km to go after dropping another attacking rider. In doing so, he set a record that even Belgian legend Merckx lacked in his glorious palmarès. The man considered the greatest cyclist of all time won his first classic, the 1966 Milano-Sanremo, at “only” 20 years old.
“For a 19-year-old to win such a competition … what he did is exceptional,” Merckx told VTM. “This is exceptional. We knew that Remco has a large engine. The fact that he is already showing it proves that he is mature early. He is ready for the big job. Can he follow in my footsteps? Maybe he will even get better. Remco has all the qualities to make it happen.”
Merckx, now 74, would go on to win Milano-Sanremo seven times. He collected wins in all five monuments, and nearly every classic. He also won every grand tour, capturing the Tour de France five times while setting the all-time race record of 34 stage wins, which still stands today.
While flattered, Evenepoel deflected the high praise, saying, “Eddy Merckx says that I might be better than him? Nice words, but it would be very, very difficult to match his palmarès.”
The Flemish cyclist from Schepdaal does not wear the rainbow stripes, but he won them as a junior in both the world championship time trial and road race in 2018. Evenepoel closed the season with 23 wins, dominating the junior racing calendar last year. He won all four stage races he entered. Such was his success that he skipped past the under-23 ranks, signing with Belgium’s top pro team, going from juniors to the WorldTour.
To win the Clásica San Sebastián, Evenepoel followed an attack from Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo), and then dropped him on the final climb. Evenepoel then fended off a chase group that included Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team), and Michael Woods (EF Education First). The WorldTour one-day race win comes after a recent run that included wins of the Baloise Belgium Tour overall and a stage in the Adriatica Ionica.
The latest race win is a next step in what Evenepoel and Merckx expect to be a long career.
“It makes you dream when young riders [like 22-year-old Egan Bernal (Ineos)] step up and immediately win the Tour de France. It is an incentive to go twice as fast and to be on the highest step like him,” Evenepoel told Het Nieuwsblad. “But the plan is that I won’t ride the Tour before 2023. Before, I’ll do the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, but it can always gain momentum. I have more than three years to work for that, then my baby fat will be gone. Only then will we really be able to see how strong I can become.”
Evenepoel’s will next race the European championships next weekend, then the Tour of Germany, perhaps the one-day Canadian races, and then the world championships in Yorkshire.
“My dream? Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Lombardia, the Giro, the Tour, the Vuelta, the worlds, and the Olympics,” he added. “When I have all of those, I will stop racing!”