Belgian cycling. Past, present and future. Philippe Gilbert rode up the Côte de la Redoute for the 17th and final time in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Just outside his home town of Remouchamps, he waved to the crowd as he dropped back from the peloton. No longer staring at the seatpost of the rider in front he finally had the opportunity to look down and consider the hundreds of ‘PHIL’s that had been daubed in white paint all across the road.
A couple of minutes later came the attack. The Attack. A move so savage from Remco Evenepoel at the top of La Redoute, just as the road began to flatten, that his rear wheel spun out in protest. The last time anyone attacked on La Redoute and won La Doyenne? Who knows. It was a manoeuvre so audacious that Remco even began referring to himself in the third person at the finish line.
“I’ve been suffering mentally and physically the last year and a half. Finally I feel like everything is going stable and I’ve been getting to the best Remco again” he said.
Remco rescued the spring for Quick-Step-Alpha Vinyl. Remco became the youngest winner of the oldest one-day Classic since 1968. Remco cried and hugged his mum and his dad and Patrick Lefevere. Remco attacked on La Redoute with 30km to go. Remco won Liège-Bastogne-Liège at just 22 years old.
The closest things came to unravelling for the precocious young Belgian was on an uncategorised climb just after the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, when the chase group led primarily by Michael Woods and Dylan Teuns brought him back to within 20 seconds. But there was to be no catching Evenepoel, who must have one of the lowest drag coefficients in the peloton, into a headwind finale. Bruno Armirail tried simply to follow him, the Frenchman contorting himself every which way he could in order to slip into the sliver of slipstream on offer, but Evenepoel brushed him off like he did every other rider left from the breakaway and ploughed on to the finish.
Evenepoel’s race truly began when an awful crash in the peloton with 60km to go saw his nominal team leader, Julian Alaphilippe, come down. The outcome was so severe that his countryman Romain Bardet – who rides for a different team and had scintillating form and ambitions of his own in this race – stopped to attend to him on the roadside. The immediate news after the race was that the world champion was in hospital and in a stable condition.
Thrust into a leadership role it was all or nothing for Evenepoel. His answer: I’ll take it all. Eleven years had passed since Gilbert was the last Belgian to win in Liège; the home country ended the day with three riders on the podium thanks to Quinten Hermans (what a spring his Intermarché team have enjoyed) and Wout van Aert (who can surely win this race one day himself).
However, there will only be one word in headlines in the Belgian morning papers, one word on the lips of an excited and eager public:
Forget for a moment the expectation, the talk of the ‘next Eddy Merckx’, forget the Evenepoel Monopoly board games and pizza advertisements. Forget the driving ban. Forget the Tour of the Algarve, the Tour of Denmark, the Tour of Poland. Remember that attack and this win. It all starts here.