At the 2021 World Championships in Flanders, Remco Evenepoel was at the front of the race gesticulating at his breakaway companions, trying to get them to pull longer turns on the front in the hope to stay away from a looming peloton. Throughout that day, Evenepoel was attacking at strange times and he wasn’t following team orders, angry and hot-headed. Rumour has it that he didn’t attend a meeting after the race where the rest of his teammates debriefed what had gone wrong for the home nation on that fateful day in Belgium.
Before that, it hadn’t been a straightforward season for the 22-year-old. His serious crash in Il Lombardia at the end of 2020 meant he didn’t start racing until the 2021 Giro d’Italia in May, and that hadn’t gone to plan either. It was on stage 16 of the race that Evenepoel dropped out of the top ten on GC, losing a mammoth 24 minutes to Egan Bernal on the Passo Giau.
On that day, Evenepoel blew up in a spectacular fashion; he was without the endurance base required of riders in a Grand Tour and was unable to pace his effort to limit his losses on the toughest climbs. He’d been showing cracks in his armoury before that too, memorably ripping out his ear piece on the stage 11’s gravel roads when he was briefly abandoned by his former Quick-Step teammate João Almeida.
Then, Evenepoel’s relationship with cycling’s media and fanbase was controversial too: the Belgian rider often showed confidence and assertiveness that some would say brinked on arrogance. Maybe it’s that he released his own self-named clothing brand at just 19-years-old or the fact he was incredibly open about how assured he was that he could win races, to put it quite simply: Remco really wasn't everyone’s cup of tea. Unlike his teammate Yves Lampeart whose quote “I’m just a farmer's son from Belgium!” went viral when he won the first yellow jersey at this year’s Tour de France, Evenepoel is far from the guy next door.
2022, though, has seen a monumental shift in the Belgian’s entire demeanour. Gone are those angry, brash reactions and here we are seeing a calm, collected GC rider who is exhibiting self-control by the bucket load. The 2022 Vuelta a España has, so far, epitomised the brand new Remco Evenepoel, both from a psychological and physical sense.
As the race reached Spanish shores and Primož Roglič took a win on stage four’s uphill finish in Laguardia, Evenepoel finished quietly down in eighth place, a sign from the off that he was racing smart, keeping his reserves fresh for the hard days he knew were to come. The Belgian wasn’t chasing bonus seconds or nervously reacting to every attack, he was calm and level-headed, ensuring he didn't waste energy.
Evenepoel waited until the savage Pico Jano climb the following day to make an attack that could really make the difference. He chose terrain where he knew time gaps would be big, and it worked. He finished the stage over one minute ahead of Roglič. Once he had this advantage, the Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl rider rode calmly and conservatively for the following two stages until he dealt his second blow on stage nine with a similarly well-timed attack on the final climb.
Going into the individual time trial on stage ten, Evenepoel had a lead of just over one minute on Enric Mas (Movistar) in second place. The pressure was on to perform, but the 22-year-old shouldered that with respectable maturity. He wasn’t talking up his chances before the stage, and when the interviewer told him that he had won by 48 seconds ahead of Roglič once he’d finished his effort, Evenepoel simply smiled and admitted he was surprised. He said he could relax for the rest of the race now he had a stage win, talking down his ambitions for the overall victory.
This is a Remco that many of us don’t really recognise. It’s a remarkable change in his ability to cope with pressure and the spotlight, and it’s making him a better athlete in the process. On stage twelve when he crashed on a descent, he was shown after the race speaking into his radio apologising to his teammates for the mistake and thanking them for their work. He’d made a steady return to the bunch without panicking or making too much effort. A few years ago, we may have seen a very different response from Evenepoel.
It isn’t just from a psychological perspective that Evenepoel is evolving. We’ve seen the Belgian show signs of weakness in the race’s two most recent mountain stages, losing time to Roglič on both occasions who sits in second place. On stage 14, Evenepoel lost 48 seconds on the final climb, on stage 15, it was another 15 seconds handed back in favour of his rivals.
While this is far from ideal for Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, it could have been a lot worse. In the past, we’ve seen Evenepoel blow up on mountains and lose buckets of time to the riders at the front of the race. In the Vuelta, though, he has remained level-headed, riding calmly and methodically to his power numbers, staying in the rhythm he’s comfortable with. There’s been no sign of disdain, anger or resentment. Instead, Evenepoel has been doing what is required to limit his losses, without pushing himself too close to his maximum and risking a monumental blow-up.
It’s this new approach to racing and changed attitude that could mean Evenepoel takes the red jersey all the way to the finish of the race in Madrid. The Belgian seems to have a firm grasp on how to race smart and how to conserve energy by keeping calm in the face of chaos and keeping perspective when things begin to go wrong. While Evenepoel has lost time to his rivals in the last two days, his reaction and the way he has coped with this could be the proof we need that Evenepoel has the ability to win this Grand Tour. It’s about more than just physical ability, and the young talent now looks to have honed in on the psychological strength he once lacked to be able to endure a three week race.