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ABU DHABI, UAE (VN) – A lot changed in four years for Remco Evenepoel.
The reigning world champion returns to the UAE Tour this week for the first time since his neopro season in 2019.
That year, the rough n’raw 19-year-old Evenepoel crashed out of what was just his second race in the pro ranks. In 2023, Evenepoel leads Soudal Quick-Step with the status of a pre-race favorite and a treasured stripey jersey on his shoulders.
“I remember I came here with the idea to try and win this race. But it was after three months of being professional. So after that race, I really understood OK, there’s going to be a long way to come back here and try to win the race,” Evenepoel told VeloNews and a small bunch of media at the pre-race conference Sunday.
“To be back here four years later in a special jersey with miracle victories behind my name, I think at that moment, I never would have thought that I was going to be so far already.”
Evenepoel’s four-year flight through the WorldTour was jet-propelled.
Bombastic solo victory in his rookie Clásica Ciclista San Sebastián was just the start of a rocketing rise that even a horror crash and swath of injuries couldn’t stop.
After his 2022 march through Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Vuelta a España, and road worlds, a relaxed, affable Evenepoel explained how cycling transitioned from work to play through his four-year pathway.
“I think cycling has become more and more a passion for me. I think in the first years maybe I saw it too much as my job because I felt obligated to do the training, I felt obligated to follow the diet. But now it’s like it just comes naturally,” he said.
Evenepoel is no longer loathsome of long training rides in the rain and rough weather.
The 24/7 strain of diet, recovery, sleep, and cycling isn’t an issue for a 23-year-old ranked third in the world and rated a genuine contender for this spring’s Giro d’Italia.
“I think things like that are where I feel that I really see cycling in a different way from in the beginning of my career,” Evenepoel said.
Life after soccer: ‘Initially, I didn’t really want to go into cycling’
After a childhood in soccer with Belgian powerhouse R.S.C Anderlecht and Dutch crew F.C. Eindhoven, Evenepoel had already been through the elite sporting ringer when he pivoted onto the pedals.
Burned out on the contract talks and financial incentives of football, Evenepoel’s childhood passion became too much a profession – an opposite trajectory to his cycling career so far.
“I don’t regret my choice [to leave soccer], especially after last year. I started football at the age of four, which is really early, and I finished at 17. Maybe I just started too early, which made me start to not enjoy it anymore in the end,” he said. “So I think that was the biggest reason why I changed.”
Fortunately for Evenepoel, he was likely one of those kids that crushed every P.T. class and captained every school team.
Strava shows his stunner running splits, soccer was a natural gift, and cycling – he’s pretty good at that too.
“Initially, I didn’t really want to go into cycling, I just want to do something new and enjoy sports,” he said. “In the end, I chose to ride the bike, which was a good decision.”
This week’s UAE Tour looks set to be a big brawl between Evenepoel and the home team triumvirate of Adam Yates, Jay Vine, and Brandon McNulty.
A victory “away from home” (per soccer parlance) will further confirm Evenepoel made the right choice with his latest sporting venture.