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‘Playing a different game’ – Remco Evenepoel faces next phase of Vuelta a España

MONTILLA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 02: Remco Evenepoel of Belgium and Team Quick-Step - Alpha Vinyl - Red Leader Jersey celebrates at podium during the 77th Tour of Spain 2022, Stage 13 a 168,4km stage from Ronda to Montilla 315m / #LaVuelta22 / #WorldTour / on September 02, 2022 in Montilla, Spain. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) in the red leader's jersey after stage 13 (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Remco Evenepoel is not a rider like any other. If that wasn’t already apparent from his performances as a junior, then it certainly was after his solo victory at the Clásica San Sebastián in his first professional season in 2019. Not only did he win the race, but he earned that rarest of honours for a Belgian cyclist: praise from Roger De Vlaeminck. “I don't know what it is with that little man,” De Vlaeminck told Het Laatste Nieuws, “but he never really gets tired.”

Evenepoel’s almost casual dominance at this Vuelta a España, meanwhile, has already prompted past winners Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali to hail him as the inevitable winner when the race reaches Madrid a week on Sunday. It scarcely seems to register that the 22-year-old has never finished a Grand Tour in his career. 

At times, Evenepoel has made it all look so straightforward that it’s easy to overlook his relative inexperience. The normal rules don’t seem to apply.

As the Vuelta reaches its third weekend, however, managing fatigue becomes an issue for everybody, even for a talent as unfettered as Evenepoel. His lone previous experience of racing for more than 10 days at a time came on last year’s Giro d’Italia. His challenge had already begun to flag by the end of the second week, and a crash on stage 17 to Sega di Ala would cut his Grand Tour debut short altogether.

It means that Evenepoel is venturing into the unknown in the final days of this Vuelta, but QuickStep-AlphaVinyl coach Koen Pelgrim downplayed the idea that he will be penalised for that lack of experience from a physical standpoint. The old idea that completing a Grand Tour deepens a rider’s reservoir of endurance is, Pelgrim maintains, an apocryphal one.

“No, I don’t think that physically it makes a lot of difference,” Pelgrim told Cyclingnews. “It’s more that, mentally, when you prepare for your second Grand Tour, you know a bit more about what’s coming up, and how you should save your energy for the things that are really important.”

Evenepoel being Evenepoel, the circumstances of his Grand Tour debut were, like his entire career, wholly out of the ordinary. Last year’s Giro was his first race of any description since he fractured his pelvis in a crash at Il Lombardia the previous August. His buildup to this Vuelta has been altogether smoother, even if the glare of the spotlight here will be familiar from that ill-starred Italian sojourn.

“The Giro was quite crazy with the amount of attention that came to him and that was quite overwhelming,” Pelgrim said. “That also cost him a lot of energy, so that’s something you keep in mind and hopefully handle much better now. I don’t think in the physical sense, it was a big advantage to do the Giro. Of course, it was not an optimal race, so we learned lessons from it. In that sense, it was an advantage to have done it, but physically I don’t think he gained a lot.”

Sierra Nevada

Before the Vuelta enters its third week, the race also reaches its highest point. The summit finish at Sierra Nevada on stage 15 is some 2,501 metres above sea level and the only time this race scales a climb in excess of 2,000 metres. Competing at this altitude is not a novelty for Evenepoel, who performed strongly on the even higher Alto Colorado (2,624 metres) at the Vuelta a San Juan in 2020, but racing at such a rarefied height is a different challenge this deep into a Grand Tour.

“I think every rider loses something when you go to altitude. We’ve had Colombian riders in the team who went home to train at 2,000 metres for months at a time, and you still saw they weren’t producing the same watts as they did when they came back to Europe,” Pelgrim said.

“That’s always going to be a factor, so it’s about the amount that you lose. Obviously, you want to keep it as small as possible. The more time you spend training at altitude, the lower that loss should be.”

With that in mind, Evenepoel spent much of July training in Livigno, and even when he came down to sea level on the Costa Blanca, he slept in the atmosphere-controlled rooms of the SyncroSfera ‘altitude’ hotel in Denia.

“You only sleep at altitude in Denia, you don’t do the efforts at altitude so that’s a little bit different,” Pelgrim said. “In any case, by this point in the Vuelta, it’s three or four weeks since you’ve been at altitude, and you never know how much of that adaptation has been retained. And there’s no way to maintain that: you just rely on the body.”

Patience

Racing Grand Tours, so the adage goes, is about the head and the legs. The opening 10 days of the Vuelta, played to Evenpoel’s strengths, with his aggression and raw power carrying him to a 2:41 advantage over Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma). Since his first pedal strokes as a junior in April 2017, Evenepoel has had a penchant for relentless attacking, but a three-week race demands that some curbs are placed on those instincts. In the second half of the Vuelta, logic says Evenepoel must take a more measured approach, managing both his lead and his energy.

“If you go for GC in a Grand Tour, you cannot do really crazy things, you have to conserve your energy as much as possible and use it at the right moment,” Pelgrim said. “But Remco’s a smart rider and he knows that’s important. He had less to lose in his first years as a pro. He could just go for it and see where it ends. Now, of course, the stakes are higher, and you have to play a bit of a different game.”

Then again, Pelgrim has been quietly instructing Evenepoel in the value of patience since he first began coaching the Belgian in the winter of 2018. Back then, fresh out of the junior ranks, Evenepoel was used to squeezing every last ounce of value from the training rides he fitted in around his school timetable. As a WorldTour professional whose schedule now revolved only around the bike, it took some time – and some gentle insistence from Pelgrim – before Evenepoel accepted the idea that less could be more.

“He was so eager to show himself and, in his mind, doing more was always better,” Pelgrim said. “But I think over the years, he’s learned that he had to train in a certain way, not always putting himself on the limit. His body also responds very well to that. Putting too much stress on the body doesn’t necessarily always make it better.”

A lesson to bear in mind as the Vuelta draws long.

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Head of Features

Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.