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If you play with fire, you get burnt. If you give Remco Evenepoel a long leash and a big time gap, he will win. In fact, it’s such a foregone conclusion that I’m writing this with 21.6 km still remaining in the elite men’s world championship.
The young Belgian hasn’t been home to Belgium since he won the Vuelta a Espana earlier this month, and now when he finally returns home it will be with a rainbow jersey. There is going to be a very, very good party in the coming days and weeks.
As Europe slept, there was a dramatic night unfolding Down Under. Pre-race favourite Mathieu van der Poel abandoned the race in the first hour after he was arrested and in custody until 4am following a noise dispute in his hotel. The French lit it up with over 200 km to go over Mount Keira, and then Remco just clipped away to the eventual win, seemingly unopposed.
Over two minutes after Remco crossed the line, Christophe Laporte took silver, and Michael Matthews added to his list of “nearly moments” with bronze. We were starved of the final lap excitement that we all craved. That’s not to say it wasn’t impressive.
Belgium has a new King of Cycling, but how the hell did the peloton give him his perfect race? I’m glad you asked.
Remco Slips Away (74.9 km to go)
After early drama on Mount Keira, the race settled down into what seemed like a normal day at the office. A strong but controlled group sat out front of a big, comfortable peloton behind. We were all waiting for the drama to come in the final laps, but it was the French pressing up Mount Pleasant that marked the beginning of the end for the race.
Quentin Pacher kicked things off. Sitting in the first ten wheels, the red helmeted Evenepoel just follows the wheels and is in the move. It was a hard tempo being set by Pacher, but it wasn’t a nuclear attack that put the favourites in danger.
We rarely see moments like this in normal WorldTour racing. The World Championships are one of few races on the calendar where teams are forbidden to use race radios. You can guarantee that if Remco had slipped into a move like this at any other race, directors would have ordered their riders to bring him, and the entire group he was in, back immediately. Without as much information, even a short hesitation can shape the final outcome.
Déjà vu? (35 km to go)
When Evenepoel gets into a small group, you know that sooner or later he’s going again. Probably sooner. He’s one of the best time-trialists in the world and has an awful sprint to boot, so he’s hardly going to leave it to the final 150 m, is he?
Belgium had all the cards to play. Wout van Aert was sitting comfortably behind, and Evenepoel had Pieter Serry and Quinten Hermans up front with him. The big Evenepoel group pulled out a significant gamp. With 55 km to go, Evenepoel tried to go solo, and a couple of kilometres later he tried again. He was pulled back each time, and we began to question whether this is a replay of the infamous Leuven debacle.
For those who don’t recall, the Leuven Debacle also came at last year’s road worlds. Evenepoel also placed himself in an early break, wasted a bunch of energy, and left Wout van Aert out to dry in the finale. It was a miscommunication, unclear leadership and bizarre tactics which cost the Belgians last time round. Surely they couldn’t make the same mistake twice?
The question was whether this move was too early. Was this a waste of energy?
Then, with 35 km to go, Evenepoel put his head down and accelerated under the finish barrier that he’d cross solo just under an hour later. Alexey Lutsenko was the only rider who could follow, or at least the only one who did. But with an already pained face and a slight shaking head, it wasn’t looking good for the Kazakh.
“Why didn’t the rest just sit on his wheel?” I hear you all cry. It’s not that easy, a mixture of Remco’s pure power and aerodynamic position means it’s a grand effort just to follow. Plus we were six hours into the race by this point. Legs are not fresh.
See ya, Lutsenko (25.7 km to go)
For a few kilometres, everyone questioned if Lutsenko would be able to follow Remco for longer and duel with him up Mount Pleasant. The Kazakh is one of the best climbers in the peloton and packs a handy sprint too. All he had to do was hold on. But our hopes for a thrilling finale were dashed.
The Belgian got out of his saddle, and it was immediately clear that Lutsenko wasn’t going to be following. He was laboured and seemed to hit a brick wall – attempting to follow the ever strong Evenepoel after 250 km of racing will do that to you.
From there, it was the Remco show that we all know so well by now. Every time the road went uphill, he was in complete control and pushing hard. Drop onto the flatter parts of the course and he slipped into his super-aero road position and time-trialled further into the distance. The course worked in his favour, with lots of turns and punchy climbs that made it difficult to organise a chase. It’s not exciting (unless you’re any Belgian not named Wout), but it’s clinical and impressive.
We know what we’re doing (finish line)
With a single finger to his lips, the victory salute was clear. Evenepoel has come across as cocky at times, and I imagine it’s hard not to be when you’re that good. The “shush” symbol was his retort to the media.
A year ago, there was uproar as Belgium’s two brightest stars seemed to be in conflict in their home Worlds. The so-called experts questioned whether he should be on the start line, and whether he could work in the same team as Wout van Aert.
They say a picture paints a thousand words, if you just saw that finish line photo, you could have guessed what happened. The race was Remco’d.
He’s still only 22 years old but with a palmares any cyclist would kill for. The young wolf was already an A-List celebrity in his home country, but this past month will launch him into the stratosphere. A Monument, Grand Tour and a Rainbow Jersey. Not a bad year.
I cannot remember a men’s world championship ride like it – this simply does not happen in the 267 km long Men’s Elite Road Race. In fact, one of the few men’s world champs rides in recent memory that is comparable with today’s ride was from Mr. Evenepoel himself when he decimated the junior field in Innsbruck.
The 22-year-old made men look like boys today. He was already in the history books, but a rainbow jersey is something different. Eddy Merckx won his first rainbow bands aged 22, and Remco has just done the same. The next Merckx, no. I think he’s officially the first Remco.