Over the course of three weeks at last year’s Vuelta a España, Remco Evenepoel expelled doubts that had been directed his way for many years before. Having never before finished a Grand Tour, let alone won one, there were still unanswered questions about what he was capable of as a rider, despite his obvious talent. Did he really have the capacity to be an elite stage racer, or were his powers limited to classics and time trialling? Could he sustain a high level throughout a whole Grand Tour, or would the third week be his undoing? And did he have the climbing legs to compete with the purists on the biggest and highest altitude of the mountains?
In winning the overall classification by a comfortable margin of over two minutes, he resoundingly answered each in the affirmative. There is no doubting his credentials as one of the top Grand Tour riders in the world, and he therefore goes into this year’s Vuelta as unambiguously one of the very top contenders.
Yet for all his progress last year, there is a sense that he is about to be confronted with brand new challenges as he begins his Vuelta defence later this week, and that winning a second Grand Tour won’t be as straightforward as his first ended up being. The standard of opposition looks higher, with Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard this time joining forces with Jumbo-Visma teammate Primož Roglič, along with other threatening names who weren’t here last year such as Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers); there are still concerns that Evenepoel’s Soudal-Quick-Step line-up might be exposed; and the parcours looks altogether harder and perhaps less suited to him this time.
Nevertheless, Evenepoel’s approach to winning is likely to stick to the formula that proved to be so successful 12 months ago: make time gains early on to take the overall lead, then defend it until the finish. Circumstances dictate so, as the race’s one and only time trial, his biggest opportunity to gain significant time over his rivals, comes at the very start of the second week. Yet just as fruitful for him last year was the punchy uphill finishes of the opening week — even before the time trial, he’d already built a lead of 1-12 over Enric Mas and 1-53 over Roglič, which he extended to a whopping 2-41 after the time trial. With a number of similar uphill finishes in the opening week of last year, it surely makes sense for him to target these again this time.
Where this approach might become a problem is if Evenepoel’s Soudal-Quick-Step team are found wanting. If Evenepoel takes the red jersey early in the race, then the onus will be on the team to defend the lead and protect him from attacks. Soudal-Quick-Step have been under scrutiny lately as rumours about the rider’s future abound, as many pundits question whether they are at the level necessary to support such an elite GC rider. They coped OK last year, with the likes of Ilan Van Wilder and Fausto Masnada giving him the support he needed on the climb. But neither of those riders are riding this year, while rival teams looked to have bolstered up.
Evenepoel and Soudal-Quick-Step found Primož Roglič a handful to contain 12 months ago before he abandoned during the final week last, and this year they will also have his teammate Jonas Vingegaard to worry about. UAE Team Emirates are bringing Jay Vine in addition to last year’s third and fifth-place finishes Juan Ayuso and João Almeida, and Ineos Grenadiers (rumoured to be Evenepoel’s destination for next season) have Giro domestique stars Thymen Arensman and Laurens De Plus to again support Geraint Thomas, along with Egan Bernal as a wildcard option.
The parcours may also pose Evenepoel more problems this time. If the Belgian had a weakness at last year’s race, it was on the high mountain top finishes during the second half of the race. He cracked and was dropped by both Roglič and Mas on the Sierra de la Pandera climb at the end of stage 14, then lost more time to them both the next day on the especial category Sierra Nevada. Worryingly for Evenepoel, the climbs at around the same point of this year’s race are significantly harder — stage 13 finishes atop the mythical Col du Tourmalet, while arguably the hardest climb in cycling, Alto de l’Angliru, awaits on stage 17. Though he survived the final week last year to win the red jersey, he didn’t have to face a climb as hard as this, and if he lost seconds on La Pandera and Sierra Nevada, he could concede minutes here.
Before we sound too down on Evenepoel’s chances, there is one factor that is very much in his favour — freshness. Whereas Roglič, Thomas and Almeida all already have a full Giro d’Italia in their legs, and Jonas Vingegaard only weeks ago was battling Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) at the Tour de France, Evenepoel has yet to complete a Grand Tour this season. History suggests that it’s difficult to peak for two Grand Tours in a season, even when there are few months in-between to recover as with the Giro and the Vuelta. And though Vingegaard’s form all season might make him the obvious overall favourite, he’s never ridden two Grand Tours in the same season, so we can’t know how his legs will respond.
It seems Evenepoel has spent his whole career having doubts raised about him, only to disprove them with yet more awe-inspiring performances. These may be new challenges he has to rise to over the next few weeks, but surely only a fool would bet against him.