It’s a measure of how immensely talented and how great the expectations are of Remco Evenepoel that the following question is even being posed: has this Vuelta a España, a race in which the Belgian has won three stages, is on the cusp of winning the mountains classification and wore the maillot rojo for three days, been a success for the 23-year-old?
Set those accomplishments alongside pretty much any other cyclist in the peloton and it’s obvious the answer is yes - until you take into question the identity of the rider. Because even in the aftermath of Evenepoel’s stage 18 win by almost five minutes, it comes with the asterisk that he came to Spain for more than his current lot. Much more, really.
Ever since he was cruelly struck down by a Covid-19 infection at the Giro d’Italia, Evenepoel’s season has felt a little incomplete, despite competing and winning for most of the year in the rainbow stripes, becoming time trial world champion and repeating victories at both Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Clásica San Sebastián.
As Belgium’s greatest product since the days of Eddy Merckx - or at least that’s what many would say - how Evenepoel’s barometer of success swings largely depends on his GC performances in a Grand Tour. Being forced to abandon the Giro, and then his Vuelta a España defence going up in smoke on stage 13, should set the dial pretty low.
But are we really that redundant that we can’t judge anything else as a triumph? The easy option would have been for the 23 year old to have left the race after his horror day, perhaps to have jumped into a team car long before he even reached the Tourmalet, but he stuck around and has delivered two exhibitions in the space of five stages, demonstrating how to rebound from defeat with a bucket load of class and panache.
His immediate comeback on stage 14 was greeted with tears and an outpouring of emotion; on stage 15 he tried again but just fell short; he then left everything out on the road as he tried in vain to win up the mythical Angliru on stage 17; not to be thwarted by Asturias’s goat tracks, he returned the day later to solo to victory at La Cruz de Linares. His nearest challenger, Damiano Caruso, was 4-44 back - a monstrous gap befitting of Evenepoel’s supremacy.
What’s been most striking about his redemption rides - long and often solo escapades definitely fuelled by a burning desire of proving people wrong - is how in reaching half-a-century of career victories, he’s done so with a smile, turning his pedals joyously and devastatingly. His one-day slump liberated him, and the sight of him hysterically giggling as he downed his press officer in champagne after the stage 18 winner’s ceremony was the clearest indication that Evenepoel is truly happy and content with his rewards from the race - and at peace with his failings.
He will return to the podium in Madrid on Sunday, dressed in the blue and white polka dot jersey. It’s a downgrade on the red he wore 12 months ago, but his response after adversity has won him an army of fans, highlighted what a champion he really is, and will ultimately make him a better rider. It’s not what he came for, but cycling is a journey: it has its peaks, its troughs, and it’s how riders navigate choppy waters that determines the greatness of their legacy. Evenepoel’s standing has been significantly enhanced this Vuelta.