Remco Evenepoel: Between stardom and superstardom

Remco Evenepoel in action at Il Lombardia before his crash
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Giro d’Italia is a big race for Remco Evenepoel. For the best part of 10 months, he has existed in a sort of liminal space, suspended between stardom and superstardom.

Much is made of the 21-year-old’s marketability but, since he broke his pelvis at Il Lombardia last August, his half a million Instagram follows have had to subsist on a diet of gym selfies, training shots, and motivational captions – not to mention the odd Pizza Hut endorsement.

Coping with adversity is, of course, part and parcel of an athlete’s existence, but it was a notable change in tone following the steady stream of podium photos and victory salutes.

Until then, Evenepoel had made the sport seem easy. A generational shift was already underway but the Belgian, who only took up cycling at 17, upended all conventional wisdom about the career trajectory of a professional cyclist. He made a mockery of the junior circuit and was already being dubbed ‘the next Eddy Merckx’ before he’d earned a penny. Although he resisted those comparisons, they persisted as he made a remarkable leap to the WorldTour in 2019, and then took off again when he won all four stage races he entered last year.

He was already talked about as the top favourite for the autumn edition of the Giro, but then that fateful Lombardia crash happened. Now, Evenepoel goes into his debut Grand Tour with no racing in the legs and a host of question marks hanging over him. 

But the Giro d'Italia was always going to be a big race for Remco Evenepoel, and some of those question marks were already there.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves with Remco," said Merckx himself last summer. "He hasn't shown anything yet. He talks a lot, but I wait to see the rest."

Merckx’s view was shared by a range of pundits and former riders. Everything he touched turned to gold, but it was considered too soon to anoint him Belgian’s next and long-awaited Grand Tour champion, and even more so the next Merckx, who won the Giro and Tour five times over.

"Impressive, eh? But let’s wait to see how he handles the long cols," 11-time Monument winner Roger de Vlaeminck told Cyclingnews recently.

De Vlaeminck is notoriously hard to impress, but he had a point. Evenepoel had clearly demonstrated his time trialling engine, with medals at Euros and Worlds in his first pro season, not to mention the long solo breaks, but was he a real climber? As 2020 wore on, he built a strong case, with hill-top wins at the Volta ao Algarve and more impressively the Vuelta a Burgos. 

Still, these were largely one-off climbs in races of a secondary category and only a week in length. What about stages with multiple high-altitude mountains passes, with thousands of metres of elevation, and what about doing them day-after-day in the back end of a three-week race?

Speaking to Cyclingnews ahead of the Giro d'Italia, even Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere is cautious about proclaiming his rider’s prospects.

"We have the same questions as you," Lefevere says. "He has never done a stage race more than a week. We hope he can handle it – we didn’t’ say he can handle it, but we hope so."

A divisive personality

While we wait for the evidence of the Giro to anoint Evenepoel a superstar, who can indeed dominate all before him over the next decade or so, he has already established himself as a star of the sport, and indeed of sport in general in Belgium.

Evenepoel’s every move commands attention, and every comment is sure to generate a hundred headlines. That’s partly down to his results sheet, and the fascination at the palmarès that might develop before our eyes, but also to his personality. 

Although Lefevere describes him as a polite and quiet only child, no one could ever accuse him of a lack of confidence. He has been preternaturally – almost disconcertingly – assured in his dealings with the media from day one, and the fact that his clothing line is on its third or fourth range is proof enough of a rider who doesn’t shy away from the spotlight.

In Belgium, he has cut through the dividing lines to become a household name at 21, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a household favourite.

"Take Tom Boonen, everyone liked him. Your grandma, your friends, male, female… everyone liked Tom Boonen. It’s not like that with Remco," a close observer in Belgium tells us.

"He says all the right things, but you almost get a sense that it’s not authentic. People see through it when you’re not being yourself properly. Boonen had this authenticity, and Wout Van Aert has it also. They speak their mind, whereas Remco maybe plays to the audience a bit."

This could have something to do with Evenepoel’s background as a footballer. He only made the switch to cycling in 2017 after a promising youth career with Belgian giants Anderlecht and the national side. Football is the only sport bigger than cycling in Belgium and, while both are rooted in the working classes, the archetypal Belgian cyclist has retained a degree of localized humility compared to the more elevated plain of the first-division footballer.

"He really comes across as a footballer. There’s a huge amount to respect, but he’s not like Yves Lampaert, who has the whole farmer’s thing going on, or Greg Van Avermaet, who’s the most humble guy you could ever meet and really is the guy who lives next door. Remco is not the guy who lives next door."

Remco Evenepoel will start his second season with Deceuninck-QuickStep in Argentina

(Image credit: Bettini Photo)

Lefevere is happy to acknowledge that Evenepoel is not everyone’s cup of tea. He’ll be well aware of his protégé’s public profile. In a sport as steeped in commercialism as cycling, a rider’s value is not only measured in results, but also in the visibility they can offer to sponsors. Until recently, Lefevere was saying his team’s existence was in doubt, but that uncertainty apparently disappeared when Evenepoel recently committed his long-term future.

Lefevere picks up on suggestions of confidence boiling over into cockiness – notably voiced by Philippe Gilbert and Mathieu van der Poel – but argues it’s a misperception.

"He’s a little bit ‘straight’, maybe, for some people – older people, but it’s a generational thing. If you take the generation of Johan Museeuw, they almost didn’t dare say that they were good. Then with Tom Boonen it changed a little bit, but not completely. 

"Now guys call me at 20 years of age and say ‘OK, I want to win this and that’. Some people see it as pretentious, but it’s not. It’s the new generation. They have ambition and they state that ambition."

Lefevere echoes Gilbert and Van der Poel in citing the catch-all defence: "Whatever he says, he backs it up on the bike." 

A huge engine and even greater hunger

What everyone in Belgium and beyond can agree on is that Evenepoel has immense athletic ability and perhaps an even greater desire to succeed.

Again, it can be traced back to his time as a footballer, or possibly even back to birth. On a physical level, Evenepoel’s scores in a range of endurance tests still stand as records in the Anderlecht youth set-up. He was not considered the most technically gifted player but was indefatigable in covering every blade of grass in defensive midfield.

As for his desire, that, too, outweighed his ability with the ball at his feet.

"Normally you give the youth captain's armband to the best, most technical football player, but Remco was captain everywhere because he enforced that leadership,” Anderlecht coach Stephane Stassin said last year.

"He motivated his teammates, was the right-hand man of the coach, and discussed with the referee if the team was wronged."

Evenepoel’s physical and psychological attributes collided one Sunday. It was the day after a match and most of the team were resting, as per coaches' orders, but Evenepoel turned up at the Brussels half marathon and ran a 1:16. Stassin, who started early assisting wheelchair users, would express his surprise as his 16-year-old captain, tucked in behind three Kenyans and two Ethiopians, tapped him on the shoulder and shouted ‘hey coach’ en route to 13th place.

"His principle was, 'the harder I train, the better I get’," said Stassins, who revealed Evenepoel would spend other Sundays riding 100km with his father. "But sometimes you have to dose it."

Those words look particularly prescient in light of Evenepoel’s ongoing comeback, which was delayed by several weeks this winter after progressing too fast too soon. In fact, there’s a direct parallel in that Evenepoel suffered a pelvis break – albeit a more minor one – on the football pitch.

"I was at that match and can still see Remco raging. The ambulance was there, but he absolutely wanted to keep playing, Stassins said. "He rehabilitated like a madman, but it was still hard work to regain his place at Anderlecht."

Evenepoel in his footballing days

Evenepoel in his footballing days (Image credit: Getty Images)

Evenepoel moved to the smaller KV Mechelen club but didn’t last long before deciding his future didn’t lie in football. It was a big decision for someone who’d spent time on loan at the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, first getting his parents to drive him 130km to training and back, then living with a guest family for a while.

Cycling, however, quickly turned out to be a good choice. It wasn’t like he was a complete newcomer; his father raced professionally and won the GP de Wallonnie, and there are photos of an Evenepoel wearing a replica Tom Boonen world champion’s jersey as a toddler. And yet, to go straight into a peloton in the summer of 2017 and win the Route des Géants and La Philippe Gilbert was astonishing. 

His first full season in the juniors was something else. It started out with a solo victory at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, and the wins piled high while the gaps at the finish line grew bigger – reaching almost 10 minutes at the European Championships. 

Even before his remarkable road race and time trial double at the World Championships, a number WorldTour teams were circling. Lefevere was already developing a strong relationship with the Evenenepoels but his plan to put the youngster in Axel Merckx’s development team for a year or two had to be scrapped when teams like Ineos started circling with eye-watering offers.

However, with Evenepoel, it was always about sporting ambition, rather than his bank balance.

"He never looked at the offer of Ineos, because he signed with me for peanuts," says Lefevere. "That shows that money is not everything to him. He really wanted to build up a career with us."

It was, by all accounts, a similar story as the two parties settled on a new long-term deal this spring that will keep Evenepoel in QuickStep blue until at least 2026. Even now, Evenepoel does not have an agent and negotiated the deal directly alongside his parents. It is understood he stipulated a number of bonus payments based on results, but his base salary pales in comparison with what he could earn elsewhere, and indeed with what Bora-Hansgrohe were reportedly laying on the table.

Lefevere publicly vented his anger at the German team’s approach, at a time when he was trying to secure sponsorship for 2022 and beyond, but he needn’t have worried.

"I flew to the altitude camp in Teide, and when I went into his room, Remco said ‘listen, don’t worry about the offer, I destroyed it already. I put it in the bin and didn’t even look at it. This is my team and it’s where I want to stay’.

"That shows you what he is like. Again, he’s only 21. Money will come one day, for sure." 

'Underdog' at the Giro d'Italia

Evenepoel’s market value and Lefevere’s bonus payments will soar if he does indeed establish himself as a Grand Tour contender or even winner at the age of 21. However, when it comes to this year’s Giro d’Italia, the team are trying to promote a similar level of patience.

It’s almost unprecedented for a rider to go into a Grand Tour with no racing in the legs and having not competed for 10 months. It’s certainly so for a 21-year-old who has no prior experience of a three-week race.

After the setback in his recovery in January, caution will have been paramount and the team surely wouldn’t throw him in at such a deep end if he wasn’t fully fit. However, expectations have been stripped back, and all the noises coming out of the official channels point to a ‘see what happens’ approach, while Joao Almeida, fourth overall last year, shoulders the leadership, himself only 22.

"Remco can have ambitions, of course, but don’t forget that last year Almeida had pink for 15 days, and maybe had one bad moment on the Stelvio. The guy who won the Giro there for Ineos was Rohan Dennis - he made the difference. Almeida has the right to start as the leader. Seeing as we don’t know where we are with Remco, he goes like an underdog," Lefevere says.

LAGOA PORTUGAL FEBRUARY 23 Podium Remco Evenepoel of Belgium and Team Deceuninck Quick Step Yellow Leader Jersey Celebration Champagne during the 46th Volta ao Algarve 2020 Stage 5 a 203km Individual Time Trial stage from Lagoa to Lagoa ITT VAlgarve2020 on February 23 2020 in Lagoa Portugal Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Evenepoel winning the 2020 Volta ao Algarve (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

"We go and we look day-by-day how it goes. Everyone knows he has to get used to the bunch again, so the first week will be important, with someone guiding him through the race. Then we’ll see day-by-day, and normally in the Grand Tours the decisions are made in the final week."

Evenepoel has been playing catch-up all season, only picking up training properly again in early March. At his first altitude camp, at Mount Teide, he was unable to do the same rides as his teammates but was able to take on a much greater load at a more recent camp in the Sierra Nevada. He has since been training in the Ardennes in Belgium before travelling to Italy next week.

"There’s always a risk, but we took the time to recover and we decided to try it. Since he started training again, everything has gone well. He has been to altitude camps and has done everything to be ready." 

Whether it’s enough to win the Giro will soon become apparent. Lefevere is right to repeat that Evenepoel is still only 21, even if his patience isn’t always shared by Evenepoel himself. That's also plenty of time to win the hearts of the Belgian public. 

The Giro is not necessarily a defining race in his career, but it could well be. Is superstardom just around the corner?

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