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Are three stage wins and the King of the Mountains jersey a sufficient substitute for GC glory for a rider with ambitions at the Tour de France?
Rather than getting caught up in questions about his Tour de France potential after his spectacular implosion in the Pyrénées, the Belgian is sticking a metaphorical middle finger at the doubters.
Evenepoel has romped through the back-half of the Vuelta and won his third stage in typically emphatic fashion Thursday. His helmet-tapping victory salute on the Cruz de Linares was a bullish response to the latest wave of cynicism that has come his way.
“I made that sign to show to everybody that mentally I’m kind of unbreakable,” Evenepoel said atop stage 18’s summit finish.
“It’s always easy to pull somebody down but I showed my head is pretty strong, I have a super-strong team and a super-strong wife, and they help me be unbreakable.”
Evenepoel is guaranteed the final KoM jersey and has won the most stages of any rider at this Vuelta a España.
Three stage victories, and the potential for a fourth Saturday in a Liège-Bastogne-Liège-esque trek through the Sierra de Gaudarrama, have made Evenepoel the only rider capable of stealing the headlines from Jumbo-Visma in the past three weeks.
But are hatfuls of stage-wins satisfactory for a rider looking to top Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard at the Tour in 10 months’ time?
Answering GC questions with the pedals
Evenepoel rode into his Vuelta a España title defense with typically lofty ambition.
Even in the face of Jumbo-Visma’s triple threat of Vingegaard, Primož Roglič, and Sepp Kuss, the Soudal Quick-Step centerpice backed himself for red.
Evenepoel proved his confidence well-founded from as early as his mountaintop victory in the Vuelta’s third stage.
But when it all went so spectacularly wrong less than two weeks later on the Aubisque and Tourmalet, Evenepoel and all his future plans got put through the wringer.
His bounceback victory 24 hours later further squeezed the speculation about the Belgian and his plans for future dominance.
Does the 23-year-old have the temperament to handle Pogačar and the Jumbo-Visma collective at the Tour de France?
“After my off day on the Tourmalet, I had to turn the page and win stages. I’ve taken three, and won the King of the Mountains too, so it’s been an amazing Vuelta, even without the GC,” Evenepoel said after his victory Thursday. “I had a bit of a bad week in the second week, but I can just be happy and proud.”
Evenepoel can’t escape the baying Belgian media whether he’s in France, Spain, or his family home in Flanders. But the Tour de France will expose him to pressure on a global level.
With GC goals firmly out of the picture, Evenepoel is making this Vuelta his own mental-training camp.
“This was not an answer to the criticism that I had raced stupidly. I just wanted to say that I won’t crack mentally,” Evenepoel said Thursday. “After the complete breakdown, I was able to hit back hard twice.”
Looking beyond red to yellow
Former footballer Evenepoel spectacularly missed the goal at this Vuelta a España.
But with an unsurpassable lead in the mountains classification and three stage wins on his account, he’s already looking toward gains beyond the maillot rojo.
Long-buzzing rumors about a move to Ineos Grenadiers are square in the rearview, and Soudal Quick-Step is deep into “Operation Remco 2024”.
“I have already been busy with the Tour de France during the Vuelta. It’s the main goal of next season,” Evenepoel told VTM on Friday night.
“We are already pre-planning everything, and the preparation will be completely finalized in the winter. I have great confidence that the team will develop the ideal plan, because I really want to be at the start at 200 percent.”
Evenepoel made the best of a very bad situation at this Vuelta.
He’ll come away with a new leader’s jersey for his wardrobe, his 50th pro victory, and the experience of completing just his second grand tour in four attempts. Watching his future Quick-Step superdomestique Mikel Landa embroiled in an all-Spanish battle for fourth overall further sweetens a three-week race that threatened to turn sour for Evenepoel.
Now in his fifth pro season, Evenepoel is no doubt more measured and more mature than the firecracker talent that flamed out of his debut Giro d’Italia in 2021.
His resilient bounceback in the the Vuelta’s second and third week is testament to that journey.
So is Evenepoel ready for Vingegaard and Pogačar at the 2024 Tour de France?
Three stage wins at this Vuelta showed he’s got the legs, and he’s sure he’s got the head. Now he’s got to figure out how to put both together for a full 21 days at the biggest race of them all.