Remco Evenepoel is outnumbered. There is no denying it. The defending Vuelta a España champion heads into one of the biggest battles of the 2023 edition of the race followed by a swarm of killer bees. While Evenepoel’s Soudal-Quick-Step team will do all that they can to try and help the Belgian rider, it is unlikely that any of his domestiques will make it deep into the Tourmalet stage tomorrow. In contrast, Jumbo-Visma’s squad is breathtaking.
It includes two-time Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard, three-time Vuelta a España winner Primož Roglič and current race leader, Sepp Kuss, the American who is having the race of his life, performing better than any of us could have expected ahead of the opening day in Barcelona. If one of Jumbo-Visma’s three leaders gets dropped or has a momentary lapse in form, they have back-up with two other riders ready to take up the mantle. If Evenepoel attacks, there’s three riders who will inevitably chase him down. The team in yellow has looked virtually unflappable during this race, putting forward a calm and together front. They go into the Tourmalet in almost the best position possible, Kuss with a minute lead over Evenepoel and Roglič just 20 seconds behind the Quick-Step rider. Tomorrow is likely to shake everything up, and the road will decide in which rider’s favour.
With Jumbo’s dominance in mind, is there anything that Evenepoel can do to get the better of the world-beating team? He also has UAE Team Emirates to worry about with Marc Soler, João Almeida and Juan Ayuso. How can the 23-year old rider play things to his advantage?
The way Evenepoel rides the 134km stage tomorrow will need to be largely reactive. What he does is going to depend on how Jumbo-Visma decides to do things and this could all happen long before the peloton even hits the slopes of the Tourmalet. In fact, the breakaway formation stage in the opening 50 kilometres to the summit of the Col d’Aubsique could be crucial, especially if Jumbo-Visma wants to put a satellite rider up ahead in the breakaway.
If the stage kicks off early on, Evenepoel is going to have to be attentive. His key to winning might just be by spending a few pennies earlier than he would have ideally liked and in turn forcing Jumbo-Visma to spend theirs. If a Jumbo rider goes in the break, a Quick-Step rider needs to as well. If the Jumbo rider is someone like Jonas Vingegaard, Evenepoel himself may need to react. If Evenepoel reacts, it forces Roglič to do so as well. This way, the Belgian rider could force Jumbo-Visma to show their hand early on, which will give him a clear view of who their leader really is.
Evenepoel’s performance on the longer climbs later in the Vuelta last year tells us that he, historically, has struggled at this point in the race. Waiting for the Tourmalet to try and make the difference might be a mistake – Evenepoel’s answer could be in trying a different strategy altogether.
While Jumbo-Visma’s strength lies in their three leaders, this could also be exploited as their downfall. With three GC hopefuls in their team, it rapidly depletes the number of domestiques they have who can actually sacrifice their own race for their teammates. The likes of Attila Valter and Wilco Kelderman have already had to step up this race to take up the workload that once would have been done by Kuss, who has now been promoted to a team leader. Three leaders is hard to manage for their rivals, but could it be a case of too many cooks in the Jumbo kitchen? Will they really sacrifice their race for each other if they need to?
Regardless of what Evenepoel decides to do tomorrow, he finds himself in a very tricky situation heading into the stage. Both Jumbo and UAE have stronger teams than him with more options and the Belgian, at some point, has to find a moment to claw back time on Kuss before the race reaches its conclusion. Evenepoel himself is remaining coy about what he will do on the fabled slopes of the Tourmalet tomorrow, telling Sporza: "Every day I see someone from Jumbo-Visma standing behind your back to listen. I won't reveal anything anymore. The most important thing is that I have to have the legs. Then it remains to be seen who is in the flight and how the teammates feel."
Tactical decisions and race strategy is one thing, Evenepoel seems to know one thing for certain, this is a bike race where he will need to answer it all with his strength. "Jumbo-Visma has three riders in the top 10, so they have the advantage,” he said. “But it will be a stage where the legs will decide.”