Remco Evenepoel: Defying expectations

Not many predicted the huge advantage the Belgian rider would have over his rivals going into the second week of the Vuelta a España, but Evenepoel has a way of surprising us with his performances

Remco Evenepoel makes winning a time trial stage of the Vuelta a España look easy. Maybe it's how he crosses the line: calm and composed, not collapsing into his soigneurs or lying on the hot Spanish tarmac. Instead, it’s a few deep breaths, a few glugs of water and a spin over to his turbo trainer to warm down. Maybe it’s the way he’s cut the long sleeves off his red skinsuit in a makeshift way, sort of like he hasn’t even considered if this might have aerodynamic downfalls. Maybe it’s the way the shorts of the leader’s skinsuit sit a little bit higher than his tan lines, giving him this less polished look that we’re not used to seeing on professional cyclists.

Or perhaps it was in the race, how he kept his upper body rock solid, how he barely bobbed his head, how he nailed every corner, how he averaged 55.6 kilometres per hour without even really looking like he had to try. In the end, he beat the three-time winner and defending champion Primož Roglič by 48 seconds. A huge, historic margin and one that even Evenepoel himself admitted he didn’t expect when interviewed after the stage.

But perhaps it isn’t the physical aspect of Evenepoel’s performance that makes it so impressive and so intimidating for his rivals. Since he entered the WorldTour in 2019 with Quick Step, the Belgian has been under pressure. His performances as a junior rider meant he was touted as the next big thing, and with that he’s been under constant scrutiny from the press. Every move has been watched, every quote heavily analysed and criticised. If he was confident, he was arrogant, if he was coy, he was standoffish. Before this Vuelta a España, he entered as the one of the main favourites to take the overall win, despite never having finished a Grand Tour in his career. 

His win in one-day race Donostia San Sebastian Klasikoa, where he crossed the line almost two minutes ahead of Pavel Sivakov in second place, was an indication of the form that the 22-year-old is exhibiting currently, but with it came expectation. How Evenepoel has shouldered that expectation in the Vuelta is perhaps even more of an impressive feat than the physical strength it takes to put in the performances he has been so far in this race.

Everyone expected him to win today: it was a time trial course well-suited to him in a Vuelta a España with a route almost tailor-made for his strengths. To execute his ride under those circumstances show a level-headed strength and tenacity, and a maturity beyond his years.Image: David Stockman/Getty Images

So what does today mean for the rest of the race? It's clear that Evenepoel can perform under the pressure of wearing a leader’s jersey, he’s clearly the strongest man in the Vuelta at the moment and he goes into the second week with a leading margin of 2 minutes 41 seconds. Is this it? Race over? Should we hand the trophy to the Belgian now, to save the rest of the peloton the suffering of making it to the final stage in Madrid?

The answer’s no. Evenepoel’s performance today was impressive and sent a strong message, but he nor the rest of us need to get ahead of ourselves. There are still four summit finishes to come in this year’s Vuelta and some tough intermediate stages, and anything can happen in a three week Grand Tour. Evenepoel’s endurance over a multi-week event has rarely been tested, and there is a chance he might have peaked too soon.

Roglič might not be in the shape he was hoping for after his crash at the Tour de France, but the Slovenian does have one advantage in his armoury: experience. He’s done this before, he knows how it goes, and maybe he’s just measuring his effort. It would only take one spectacular blow from Evenepoel on a long climb for him to lose all the advantage he’s built up. The 22-year-old is yet to be tested in this race and in cycling, we never know what to expect.

It’s true that the odds are constantly swinging in Evenepoel’s favour, and that his performance today shows no sign of cracks emerging in his form or in his mental capacity to cope with the attention that this race is bringing to him. But, the beauty of bike racing is that everything can change in an instant. This Vuelta a España is not done. 

But above all, whether Evenepoel takes home red in Madrid or not, his performance in today’s ITT should long be remembered as one of the most impressive shows of strength and talent seen in bike racing’s recent history. He’s a rider whose physical ability is so great that it makes a performance like today’s look effortless, calm and composed.

Before the stage, a winning margin so big might have seemed close to impossible, but Evenepoel is constantly telling us to throw out our expectations of him. We rarely know what’s to come from the Belgian, and that’s what keeps this Vuelta a España exciting.

Cover image: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

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