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The King of the Mountains jersey, three stage wins, countless attacks.
Even if he didn’t defend the overall victory he took last year, the young Belgian leaves the race stronger, wiser and more experienced than before, and on a mission for next year’s Tour de France.
The Soudal Quick-Step rider was keeping the big picture firmly in mind at the end of Sunday’s final stage in Madrid, believing that the ups and downs of the past three weeks will stand to him next season and beyond.
“I had a lot of different emotions during the race,” he said Sunday.
“There were a lot of different races in the race, and of course I could learn a lot from how they were raced.
“But I was also occupied a lot with my own races, with my own stages, and with trying to win stages. And also with the mountains jersey.”
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- Vuelta a España stage 18: Remco Evenepoel wins again, Kuss extends his lead in red
Things started well with a fourth place finish for his squad in the opening team time trial and when he won stage 3 to Arinsal, he moved into the red jersey of race leader.
He held that until stage 6, willingly giving it up to breakaway Lenny Martinez (Groupama FDJ) in the belief that he would spare his team effort and then later get it back.
Things didn’t work out that way.
Second on stage 8 and again in the stage 10 time trial, he looked perfectly placed to sweep forward once again when the race passed over the high mountains. However he suffered a rare off day on stage 13 to the Col du Tourmalet, finishing only 60th and dropping to 19th overall.
His final finishing position of 12th does not reflect his form, but handed him valuable lessons.
“I think we can be satisfied with what we finished off here now, especially after the big setback on the Tourmalet,” he said. “I think we will have learned a lot towards next year’s Tour de France.”
It is said that we sometimes learn more from failure than success and while it is a big stretch to call his race a failure, the disappointment of the general classification will, he believes, translate into important learnings for the future.
What was the most important knowledge gained?
“That I can actually still improve in a grand tour,” he said. “Because I really felt better and better every day in the last week. I think we can always be confident and patient that I can perform well in a grand tour, but we just need to have a perfect preparation in a relaxed environment and not be in a hurry.
“Then I think I can do pretty well, like last year, in grand tours.”
Evenepoel was awarded the most combative rider for the Vuelta, and underlined that trait with a rip-roaring attack on the final stage.
With just over an hour remaining, Nico Denz and Lennard Kämna (both Bora-hansgrohe) plus Rui Costa (Intermarché – Circus – Wanty) gapped the bunch.
Evenepoel, Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) subsequently bridged across with 32km to go. The Belgian champion did a lot of driving at the front and helped ensure they went into the final kilometer with a lead of several seconds.
Things unraveled when the group stalled, looking at each other, prompting Evenepoel to fire off an all or nothing move with just over 500 meters remaining.
Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck) was immediately on to him and swept past to take the stage. Evenepoel’s exhausting sprint saw him fade just before the line, ending up eighth, but he played a fundamental part in shaping both the drama and the final outcome.
“It was not really a plan, but when I heard the names that were in front, I thought it was a good group to join,” he explained. “Then when I saw that Ganna and two other Ineos riders were with me, it was pretty clear that we just had to go full and try to go for it. It was a good move, we went until the finish line.”
A final stage victory would have been the icing on the cake. Indeed had the group not stalled that might have happened, freeing him up to jump closer to the line and not be such a sitting duck for Kaden Groves.
Still, he got a kick out of it. The stage outcome was not what he was aiming for, and neither was the GC outcome, but he had a blast.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “I really enjoyed this last stage, the last days. I came pretty close yesterday, again today pretty close, but I think today for me was pretty difficult to win.
“But I had a lot of fun in this Vuelta, yes.”
Look out for the same effervescent approach to next year’s Tour.
He’s still developing, still improving, and the next step in his evolution will happen then.