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Evenepoel put a further dent in the confidence of the distant classification group with a bullish sprint win over closest rival Enric Mas on the Piornal summit Thursday.
Despite now being 2:07 up on Mas and surfing the wave of his second stage victory, Evenepoel asserted the Vuelta is still all to ride for.
“We’re still really far from Madrid, so I’m not the winner of the Vuelta yet. But today was really good for the head and the confidence of the team,” Evenepoel said in his post-stage conference.
“But I’m not the winner of the Vuelta yet. I won the stage, but I’m not the winner of the Vuelta.”
Also read: Evenepoel pummels on the Piornal
Enric Mas launched his second do-or-die assault in two stages in the explosive final of Thursday’s double ascent of the Piornal.
Just like on stage 17 on Wednesday, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s Belgian ace matched and then bettered Mas in every move the Mallorcan made.
Evenepoel will watch Mas and his Movistar team all the way to Madrid as the Vuelta’s home team looks to wrestle unlikely victory from the Belgian’s vice-grip.
“Enric was really strong today. He and [Juan] Ayuso showed they’re really strong in the GC group when they rode away from everyone in the final kilometer,” Evenepoel said. “Enric is looking really strong, and this is also why the Vuelta isn’t over yet.”
There was a sense when Primož Roglič abandoned the race Wednesday morning that the Vuelta was effectively done and dusted – Evenepoel was two minutes in front and fierce in his defense of the maillot rojo.
Now without Roglič to worry about, Evenepoel is growing into his red jersey with every passing pedal stroke.
“With or without Primož, the race was always going to be hard. It’s a pity for the race he’s not here because he was one of the strongest GC riders cycling had of recent years,” Evenepoel said.
“It’s not that I feel more relaxed [after Roglič’s exit], but it’s a bit more easy to just to focus on one guy. I just want to wish him all the best, and hope he recovers well.”
‘I think my Vuelta has been perfect so far’
Evenepoel barely missed a beat at this Vuelta. The 22-year-old Belgian hit his second grand tour with all the hype but uncertainty about his ability to convert in the heat of a three-week race.
Dominant time trial victory and a near-faultless red jersey defense since stage 6 saw Evenepoel surpass the expectations of even the most fervid of Belgian fans.
“My main goal was to come here and win a stage and do a good GC. Now I got two stages so I think my Vuelta has been perfect so far,” he said.
“But now we’re in a situation where we’re close to the [final] red jersey, we want to keep fighting for it. So I think the main goal is to keep the jersey now. I’d be lying if I said different.”
Evenepoel now has just a mountainous breakaway stage Friday and a complicated trap-laden stage 20 to negotiate before he can take “perfect” to a new level.
Delivering the red jersey for Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl would ink him in the history books as the first Belgian grand tour winner in more than 40 years, and catapult him into the front echelon of pro cycling.
“We just want to keep fighting and try to keep the jersey,” he said. “We’ve got two stages so our Vuelta has already been very successful.”