'Pogačar will be unreachable' - Remco Evenepoel's relaxed and realistic Tour de France approach

While his preparation for the event hasn't been smooth, Evenepoel appears calm and collected a few days before the Grand Départ in Florence

Remco Evenepoel has one eye on the Belgium vs Ukraine Euro 2024 football match while he fields questions about what he expects from his first ever Tour de France. At one point, he stumbles mid-sentence and apologises for the slight pause that follows, explaining to journalists that it was because Belgium had just had their first shot on target. The whole thing is symbolic of the 24-year-old’s impressive – and somewhat surprising – nonchalant attitude and calmness ahead of the biggest bike race of the year.

Perhaps Evenepoel has just grown up in the last couple of years. There was a time when journalists could expect hot-headed and sharp-tongued responses from the Belgian rider. He has been known to exhibit a type of fiery passion and rash decision making during races – something that, at times, has got him into hot water at crucial moments. A fast mover, an even faster talker.

A question is asked about Evenepoel’s experience of the white gravel roads in the Giro d’Italia in 2021, when he lost time on the general classification on stage 11, seemingly struggling to grapple with the terrain. The suggestion is that Evenepoel could suffer the same fate in this year’s Tour de France when the peloton will face 14 gravel sectors on stage nine, but the man himself is quick to point out how much has changed in the last three years.

Evenepoel during the 2024 Critérium du Dauphiné (Image: A.S.O./Billy Ceusters)

“I think comparing myself between now and then is unfair. I'm feeling ready for [this year’s Tour de France gravel] stage. It's something special,” Evenepoel says. “It will be a day with a lot of pressure in the bunch but I'm actually quite excited for that stage. For sure, the gravel sections can be tricky but it’s more that you can lose stupid time with mechanicals and stuff. But honestly, I'm looking forward to that stage. It's something exciting. It's something that I've learned to do.”

‘Learning’ has been the operative word during Evenepoel’s senior career so far in the years leading up to his Tour de France debut this weekend. There have been big wins, like the World Championships and the Vuelta a España in 2022, but there have also been setbacks and difficulties. This season especially has thrown a lot at the Soudal-Quick-Step rider so far in terms of bad luck: he was caught up in the catastrophic crash at Itzulia which meant he wasn’t on his best form for the Critérium du Dauphiné, and he recently suffered from a small illness forcing him to miss the Belgian Championships. It hasn’t been the dream preparation for the Tour de France.

“I had to take some steps back but overall I think I tried to push myself as much as possible in training, nutrition and everything,” Evenepoel explains. “I tried to improve everything in a positive way so I think, for now, I need to be happy with what I did the past three weeks. I tried to push myself to the maximum every day and I don't have to blame myself for not training hard enough or not focusing enough. I’ll try my best.”

Perhaps Evenepoel’s calmness is also, in part, due to the fact that he seems to believe this year’s Tour de France is somewhat of a foregone conclusion. After Tadej Pogačar's dominant Giro d’Italia win, the Slovenian superstar starts the Tour as the bookies’ favourite for victory – and Evenepoel is in agreement with the pundits.

“I expect Tadej to be unreachable, almost,” Evenepoel admits. “I think what he showed in the Giro was already super impressive, and knowing that he didn't have to go deep in the race to get the results means it will definitely not have tired him out before he came here to the Tour. Tadej will be the man to beat in this Tour de France.”

Evenepoel also points out that after Pogačar was demonstrably defeated by Jonas Vingegaard and the Visma-Lease a Bike team at last year’s Tour, UAE Team Emirates will be back with a vengeance in 2024. The 24-year-old believes that this could impact the way the race plays out on the opening hilly stages in Italy this weekend.

Evenepoel during the 2024 Critérium du Dauphiné (Image: A.S.O./Billy Ceusters)

“I think UAE and especially  Pogačar, they want to kind of pay back for what Jumbo did last year to UAE. It might be a bit of revenge for them. I'm actually curious to see how they will approach the first days,” Evenepoel says.

“I think UAE as a team want to win as much as possible with stages and especially the GC as well, after two years missing out. I think they will be very motivated and they just want to show to the world that they are the best team, that they are kind of the Real Madrid of cycling. It’s actually something very curious to look forward to and knowing what happened last year and the year before, it's going to be a special situation in the race.”

Evenepoel might be realistic about the capabilities of his rivals, namely Tadej Pogačar, but he still has not lost that ruthless ambitious streak that has won him so much in his career so far. When it comes to the opening stage of the Tour, Evenepoel doesn’t rule out victory, but he’s learnt enough over the years to be aware that riding sensibly is going to be crucial.

“I think if there is any possibility to win for sure, I will not leave it on the sides,” Evenepoel asserts. “But I will not give myself 30 kilometres all out on my own to try and take that stage win. If I can do it in a sprint of a small group, then it's quite an economical way, but if it has to be in a non-economical way, then for sure, I will not even give it a try. It's more about surviving the first days and staying out of trouble, seeing how the race develops, how the legs feel, and also breathing in the atmosphere. I think that's going to be a very important one on the first days.”

Above all, Evenepoel appears devoid of pressure or expectation ahead of the Tour de France. He knows he’s not the favourite, and he knows his preparation has been less than ideal. At the same time, the Belgian rider’s approach is far from defeatist – he’s Remco Evenepoel, after all. It could well be that this calm and measured version of Evenepoel ahead of Le Tour is exactly what helps him exceed expectations altogether.

“For the moment, I feel quite relaxed, no stress or anything that would bother me,” Evenepoel says. “I'm just looking forward to everything actually, it's the first time for me, so I’m looking forward to the team presentation then just getting started for stage one.”

Rachel Jary

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