Being Remco Evenepoel comes with its challenges, as much as its perks. The talent, the fame and the financial remuneration have their drawbacks: intense scrutiny, fervent speculation, and barely any peace. Add into the mix his Belgian nationality and it’s a cocktail of stresses that only a handful can negotiate their way through to keep focused on the sporting task at hand.
The past six months have been the most turbulent of Evenepoel’s young career. Stories erupted last summer that he was looking to exit his five-year contract early and depart Soudal–Quick-Step, unconvinced that they could support his Tour de France ambitions. He delayed committing his future to the team, but not long after he did, it emerged that Quick-Step were close to merging with Jumbo-Visma, now Visma-Lease a Bike. In the end, the coupling of the two superteams was axed.
But all the headlines and social media chatter did, Evenepoel now admits, prove a distraction to him. “I must admit, I maybe have been listening too much,” he says in conversation with members of the press in Calpe, Spain. “And it probably made me lose a little bit of self confidence over the last season. That’s why I took quite a long break after the season. It helped to change some things in my head, in my approach. I think it’s important to change the mindset, let’s say, to find the self confidence again that I had in previous years.”
He admits he did follow the transfer gossip. “It was a bit crazy that these stories were such big headlines because from the outside it looked much bigger than it actually was,” he says. “For me it was a bit surprising to see so many details which weren’t even the truth. It has been strange and a bit harsh as well.”
Already a Grand Tour winner, a road race and time trial world champion, and twice a Monument victor, Evenepoel reflecting slightly sourly on a 2023 campaign that brought with it 13 wins is a testament to the effect external noise can have on athletes. But, he insists, he’s now overcome the challenges.
“I feel a bit different now in my head than how I was over the summer,” he goes on. “After the Covid infection in the Giro [d’Italia after stage nine while leading the race] things were quite a bit mad in every aspect. It was always up and down, and finding the rhythm again wasn’t easy.
“But I think now things have really changed and training has been going pretty smoothly. I will not be stressed if I cannot train a day, or if I have to skip a day, which wasn’t the case in the past few years. All these things will probably help me in the races, and it will save some energy for hectic moments in competitions.”
Evenepoel’s biggest competition in 2024 is the Tour de France, where he will make his long-awaited and much-hyped debut. “I feel like I sleep better with the idea of going to the Tour,” he smiles. “It’s just something exciting. Finally, it’s there! It’s coming! I also feel it in my training. I am so excited to start the Tour. It’s a new kind of energy that I have not felt for quite a long time.”
A winner like Evenepoel, an athlete with an insatiable desire to always improve – “I”m into all of the details, just getting everything right.” – won’t turn up to the Tour with ambitions of anything less than the yellow jersey, even when considering the competition he faces. But acutely aware of his magnetic appeal for stories and attention, Evenepoel is playing a public game of lowering expectations. It’s not a sign that he feels that he can’t compete with Jonas Vingegaard, Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič, but more that he doesn’t want to be burned by an apparent failure if he doesn’t win the biggest race of all on his first outing.
“It’s possible,” he says when asked about finishing on the podium, “but of course everything has to go well. For me personally it’s difficult to say the result I will get in the GC. My main goal will be to come out with a stage win, at least one hopefully, and then we will see about the GC. On July 21 we will see what the result will bring: is it 17th, third, first, eighth? We will see.”
The so-called Big Four won’t collectively lock horns until the Tour starts in Florence, but before then, Evenepoel will face each of them in various races. Does he need to get the better of them before the Tour? “It can be important, but it shouldn't be important because if you look at Jonas in the last couple of years, the races he was really on a high level at were the [Critérium du] Dauphiné and the Tour. Then last year at Paris-Nice Pogi beat him, but Jonas won the Tour. So if you decide to go steady towards your best shape, that’s your team’s or a personal decision.”
It appears that Evenepoel, partly characterised by his brave and attacking style, is understanding that a rider typically has to be more conservative to win a Grand Tour. “For sure tactics are going to be different,” he acknowledges. “But in Paris-Nice and [Itzulia] Basque Country I can race how I like, and have some crazy ideas. But the Dauphiné and Grand Tours, where you have high mountains, it’s a completely different story.”
Each season the stakes get ever higher for Evenepoel, but there’s an appreciation that that’s to be accepted – and craved – when he has been blessed with such cycling brilliance. “Something I have to appreciate is that other guys have to work for many years and still they cannot win a race. For me it’s completely different. I have to thank nature for those talents. I realise things I’ve already done, from where I have come from. It’s going fast, crazy fast actually, but I appreciate it, and try to enjoy it as much as I can.”
The past is the past, however, and only his big Tour bow this summer will determine his future trajectory – as well as the outside talk. “The big test, for sure, will be the Tour,” he says. “It’s still a big question mark for how I can and will perform there. ”