Remco Evenepoel is back and on his way to greatness once again after Liege-Bastogne-Liege heroics
Remco Evenepoel claimed his first Monument title at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and showed not just his physical strength but the robustness of his character, 18 months after a devastating crash at Il Lombardia. It has not been an easy rehabilitation for the one once touted as the next Eddy Merckx, but it seems he is finally delivering on his early promise. He may yet be the rider of a generation.
Highlights: Brilliant Evenepoel solos to victory, Alaphilippe in ‘disaster’ crash
Remco Evenepoel has been a polarising figure since even before he joined the professional ranks.
Beyond Belgium, and the most cosmopolitan close followers of junior cycling, the first time many of us watched him race was at the 2019 Junior World Championships in Innsbruck. He won the time trial by more than a minute from Australian Luke Plapp. In the road race, despite being caught up in a crash that cost him plenty of places and a stack of time, Evenepoel was able to push his way through the field, before riding to a solo victory by a margin of 85 seconds over the next best rider.
And pushed is more than merely a figurative word in that sentence. As sensational as his performance was, you might remember seeing him physically manhandle his way past fellow competitors on a climb. There was the sense, in some quarters, that he was a bit too big for his boots, that he had bought into the hype around him and the headlines calling him 'the next Eddy Merckx'. He was far from the first Belgian rider to have had the label imposed upon them, but most have tended to bat it away. 'Remco' as he almost immediately became known, seemed to embrace it.
That he bypassed completely the under-23, pro-continental ranks, where young riders most typically learn the trade of professional cycling, and was instead given a (presumably very generous) contract with Belgium’s biggest team was only going to add highly combustible fossil fuels to the flames of excitement surrounding him.
‘I woke up with a good feeling’ – Evenepoel on ‘perfect day’
Remco then did not enter the WorldTour with his head down. He raced like he had in the juniors, fearlessly, respecting no one. His employers did their best to manage expectations, keeping out of the highest profile events. A top 10 overall finish in his first stage race, just 13 seconds behind Nairo Quintana, undid all their hard work.
Evenepoel’s first win did not come until June of his first season. It wasn’t a massive race, but it was at home in Belgium, so hardly on the DL, either. San Sebastian was where the machine went into overdrive. It was not so much what he won as the obliterative way in which he won it. The European TT title less than a week later only fed the beast.
If you’ll forgive the personal anecdotal interjection, I first encountered Remco at their training camp in Calpe at the start of 2020. Despite his tender years and limited achievements, he was in at least as much demand as Julian Alaphilippe. He seemed to enjoy being seen as a leader. He came across as more charming than arrogant, though that is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. I recall a Eurosport colleague who was present pointing out that Evenepoel had played high level junior football, and likely had been through media training. I thought he came across as cocky but in a natural, interesting and engaging way. Each to their own, I guess.
Even Covid did not seem to slow the Remco juggernaut. Despite the Giro d’Italia he was supposed to take the first maglia rosa at being postponed, he managed to win every stage race he entered that season. And then came the crash at Il Lombardia.
The terrifying crash left Evenepoel with a fractured pelvis and a lung contusion.
More than just a literal sending off course, it completely wrecked the trajectory of this young man’s career. Before today it was probably the most meaningful thing to ever happen to him in cycling.
Remco Evenepoel | Il Lombardia 2020
Image credit: Getty Images
Although he returned to competition at the 2021 Giro, he was not the rider people (thought they) expected him to be. He performed well, but ordinarily so. At the Giro d’Italia he started out okay but faded before the race really got going. Remco’s body, which had previously been cashing all the cheques his ego had been writing, was seemingly no longer able to. That got him into trouble with his team-mates, the media, and with Eddy Merckx.
What it meant was that expectations returned to levels more suitable for someone so young. He still attracted plenty of attention in the Belgian and international cycling press, but talk of him winning everything in sight reduced from overwhelmingly raucous to mere murmurs. It allowed him room to breathe, to develop physically and mentally at the most natural pace for him.
After what he did at Liege-Bastogne-Liege this weekend, that volume may well be about to rise once again.
Sometimes we only recognise a move for what it was in retrospect. We only see its significance within the context of events that followed. Remco Evenepoel’s attack over the summit of La Redoute was one we knew even in real time we would look back upon in years to come.
Evenepoel destroys field with ‘ferocious, vicious acceleration’
It was more than impressive for being race-winning, more than merely Monumental. It was a move of the most blunt, brutal, ferocious, terrifying, raw, aggressive power. He didn’t try to disguise what he was doing, he just did it. He didn’t care if everyone knew what his intentions were because he knew no one could stop him. After he did it, he kept going. And going, and going.
He is a rider whose raw talent has never been in question. What has been doubted, by some, is whether it was possible for him to translate the basic genetic ingredients into success at the highest level of the sport. Because being the best bike rider in the world is about and requires more than just biology.
It requires confidence and self-belief and fearlessness and arrogance and single-mindedness and determination and an abundance of countless more ineffable psychological traits that the likes of us mere mortals cannot appreciate but goodness we know when we see.
They may not always make for an always likeable bike rider, but they do make for a winning one, and we saw them all on display at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. You'd better believe Remco Evenepoel is back and he’s on his way to greatness once again.
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