Shoring up support: Does Soudal–Quick-Step have enough firepower to help Remco Evenepoel to Tour de France victory?

The Belgian team faced the first test of its mountain support for its GC superstar Evenepoel at the Volta ao Algarve, and there's still plenty to be done before the Tour

If you’ve only seen the results of last week’s Volta ao Algarve, and not how the race actually played out, then you probably assume that Remco Evenepoel’s title defence was achieved comfortably. The standings from yesterday’s climactic uphill finish show that he placed second to Bora-Hansgrohe’s Dani Martínez, which, though not quite the desired-for stage victory, was more than enough to defend the sizable lead of over 40 seconds that he’d held on the overall classification following a typically blistering performance in the individual time trial on stage two. It’s a new year, but the same Remco, winning stage race titles at a canter.

The reality, however, was much more complicated. With about 40km to go Wout van Aert exploded out of the peloton with an attack that took Evenepoel and his Soudal–Quick-Step teammates completely by surprise. He was imminently joined by Ben Healy (EF Education-EasyPost), and the pair flew up the short hill they had attacked on the foothills of to quickly build a big advantage over the shocked peloton. Things got even more out of control when Van Aert’s Visma-Lease a Bike teammate Per Strand Hagenes dropped back from the day’s original break to help pace them, and before long they’d bridged the one minute deficit to that breakaway group. With Van Aert just 1:18 on GC and Healy 1:20, suddenly Evenepoel’s grasp on the yellow jersey was under serious threat.

For Evenepoel’s Soudal–Quick-Step teammates, it was the first real test in a season during which their ability to support him will be under close scrutiny. Speculation was rife towards the end of last year regarding the Belgian’s future, with a move to the more established Grand Tour outfit Ineos Grenadiers touted, but ultimately he decided to stick with Soudal–Quick-Step. Doing so was a show of faith in the team at which he has spent his whole professional career so far, but was it the correct choice in the year that he is to test himself at the Tour de France for the first time?

Read more: ‘He’s the fastest in the world’ - Tim Merlier is at the top of his game, but can he reap the rewards at Soudal-Quick Step?

As Van Aert and Healy continued to extend their lead as the double ascent of the decisive Alto do Malhão approached, Evenepoel might, deep down, have already been questioning the decision. Despite still having several teammates still with him to lead the chase, they were failing to make any inroads, and before long he had lost the virtual yellow jersey to Van Aert. On the climb itself he was left with just James Knox and Mikel Landa for support, and, despite their climbing credentials, they were initially only able to make minimal inroads into the deficit. By the top of the first ascent of the climb, there were only a matter of seconds separating them on the virtual GC, and the yellow jersey was in the balance.

Ultimately, the momentum eventually swung back towards Evenepoel and away from Van Aert and Healy when the gap finally started to erode on the valley roads between the first and second ascent of Alto do Malhão; but the extent to which that was down to the success of Soudal–Quick-Step, or the good fortune of finding a willing ally in the Bora-Hansgrohe team to help them chase, is up for debate. On one hand, Evenepoel’s team did well to not burn Knox and Landa up too early, and therefore able to continue chasing after the climb. Add to that Mattia Cattaneo — who the team had smartly put into the day’s break, meaning he was able to drop back and assist Knox and Landa — and there was ample firepower in the finale of the stage to ensure Evenepoel would not be left isolated.

But would that trio alone have been enough to bring back as powerful a pair as Van Aert and Healy? The gap only really started to come down to safe levels after Bora-Hansgrohe’s domestiques started joining the chase, aware of the threat on their leader Dani Martínez’s podium place, as well as eyeing up another stage win on the uphill finish. They ultimately achieved both — having lost most of their advantage on the approach, first Van Aert and then Healy were swallowed up by the peloton on the final climb, paving the way for another uphill sprint finish won by the Colombian.

Volta ao Algarve

Evenepoel won’t be too concerned by being bettered in the sprint (even if it was for the second time in four days, having also lost to Martínez on stage two), but might be perturbed at how rapidly the situation threatened to get out of hand. While Soudal-QuickStep rode sensibly not to overreact and burn off their resources, it would surely have been easier for Evenepoel if he’d had a domestique strong enough to immediately follow and shut down Van Aert when he made the original move.

That it was Van Aert who was his adversary was also pertinent. Not only does he have some history, having clashed at the 2021 World Championships while riding together for Belgium, Van Aert also a representative of the Visma-Lease a Bike team that Soudal–Quick-Step will have to contend with if they are to achieve their ambition of competing for the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. While Van Aert himself won’t be at the Tour, their line-up is still set to be stacked full of talent, with the likes of Sepp Kuss, Christophe Laporte and Jan Tratnik (who impressed to finish third place overall behind Evenepoel and Martínez in the Algarve) earmarked to support Jonas Vingegaard’s title defence. Similarly, the other top favourite Tadej Pogačar is set to have Grand Tour podium finishers Adam Yates, Jan Ayuso and João Almeida by his side at UAE Team Emirates.

It’s difficult to imagine either of these Visma-Lease a Bike or UAE Team Emirates line-ups looking as vulnerable as Soudal–Quick-Step did on Sunday. Although there were promising signs as new rider Mikel Landa did what he was recruited for and performed as a climbing domestique (particularly on stage two, where he led Evenepoel right up until the final few hundred metres), and other riders not present in the Algarve such as Ilan Van Wilder and Jan Hirt can potentially bolster Evenepoel’s support squad, Soudal–Quick-Step still have lots of work to do if they are to challenge for the yellow jersey at the Tour this year.

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