The 19-year-old Belgian prodigy impressed his teammates and even Peter Sagan by avoiding an early crash and trying his hand in some echelons and attacks before becoming part of the team's lead-out that tried to set up sprinter Alvaro Hodeg. Sagan noticed that he was well placed at the front of the peloton when the speed rose and echelons briefly threatened to split the race.
Hodeg finished fifth, several bike lengths behind winner and former Quick-Step rider Fernando Gaviria, with Evenepoel 34th in the peloton. The youngster was still interviewed by Belgian television channel Sporza and the Flemish newspapers, who are at the Vuelta a San Juan largely to follow the 19-year-old as he makes his professional debut after jumping directly from the junior ranks and his two world titles in Innsbruck last September.
"I expected it to be harder and to suffer more with the high speed in the final kilometres but it actually turned out really well, I was up there with the team. I did what I could, I did my best," Evenepoel told Cyclingnews post-stage, where his biggest concern was the worsening sunburn on his arms after almost four hours and 159km under the South American sun, in temperatures that touched 38C.
"I didn’t crash and so that’s a success for me. I had a difficult moment early on but I avoided crashing by making a weird move. I was also in the echelons a little bit later on. I’m happy; the racing was actually more relaxed than with the juniors I’ve raced against.
"I rode in the first 20 all day. I think Sagan must have seen that too because he made me a compliment. That is motivating for the next few days."
The biggest story in Flemish cycling in 2019
Evenepoel has been in the headlines in Belgium ever since he won the junior road race and time trial world titles in Innsbruck. One Belgian newspaper went as far as tracking down his girlfriend at her school during the winter and he - rather than Philippe Gilbert, Yves Lampaert or Julian Alaphilippe - was the centre of attention at the Deceuninck-QuickStep presentation in early January. He is the biggest story in Flemish cycling in 2019.
It’s understandable. Few riders have developed as precociously as Evenepoel has after quitting a football career at 16. He dominated the World Championships and has jumped directly to WorldTour level without even a thought of racing as an under-23 rider.
The expectation and interest in what Evenepoel can achieve during his career and even in his first season is incredibly high. The Belgian cycling fans are seemingly obsessed with his story and hope he is some kind of reincarnation of Eddy Merckx. He is emulating the likes of Merckx and Frank Vandenbroucke with his early debut amongst much older professional riders. Filippo Pozzato was perhaps the last rider to be a hugely talented junior, turn professional at 18 and go on to have a successful career.
Evenepoel and Deceuninck-QuickStep are aware that all the attention could be a double-edged sword. They have selected a careful race programme that includes a series of short stage races to help ease his professional debut and development. Evenepoel was not due to race in Belgium until June to somehow protect him from the spotlight but the team’s sponsors were keen to see him on home roads in the spring and so he will now ride the one-day Danilith Nokere Koerse on March 20 and then Bredene Koksijde Classic on March 22. He will be a spectator while Deceuninck-QuickStep take on the major spring Classics, with the Tour of Turkey his lone race in April.
It is easy to sense the expectation and understand the huge interest that surrounds Evenepoel. Yet he seems to be wiser beyond his years and handles it all with ease.
"It’s true there’s a lot of expectation but I don’t expect too much from myself. I’m not focused on what people say about me, I’m focused on my life and riding my bike with the team," he told Cyclingnews in San Juan, coming across as natural and open rather than media trained and cautious about upsetting his team, sponsors or the status quo.
"I think that’s the most important thing if you want to be successful. I just let people say what they want and get on with my life," he said with a shrug of the shoulders.
"I think I’ve always been true to myself. When I want to do something, I want to do it my way and everyone has to listen to me. Now I do what the team tells me to do but if I don’t agree, I give my opinion and we talk about it. That’s what a team is all about: working together. We’re both looking for the best we can."
Evenepoel’s maturity and balance remind many of Tom Boonen. He is a different kind of rider and comes from a different generation but has the same self-assured composure.
"I just want to be myself and I’m not scared to do that," Evenepoel said, not wanting to offend Boonen but keen to be his own man.
"I think the most important thing it is be open and honest. If you hide away your true character, you’ll make mistakes and it can cause big problems."
The Wolfpack puppy
Evenepoel has stolen the limelight at Deceuninck-QuickStep, even before his race debut, but the other riders have adopted him, knowing that he is an asset to the team and that they can also shine in his glory.
"They call me the Wolfpack puppy," Evenepoel revealed with a boyish laugh and a hint of pride.
"I’m cool with that name. I’m the youngest guy in the team but all the other guys help me. I thought it’d be more difficult to build good relationships with all the guys in the team but we got on right from the start of the training camp. It feels like I’ve already been in the team two or three years and that’s really important for me."
Iljo Keisse and Philippe Gilbert are 36 – double Evenepoel’s age – so he struggles to see them even as older brothers.
"Some of the guys seem like my dad..." Evenepoel joked but with respect for his elders and teammates.
"I told Iljo that he’s my dad in the team. He’s okay with that and sometimes I even call him Papa, he laughs at that. We get on really well and he’s my roommate here at the Vuelta a San Juan. I might joke about him but I know I have to listen to his advice because he’s got so much experience."
Evenepoel knows that his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammates will help him and protect him in races, even if he can probably fight his own battles.
"We’re not worried about anyone being jealous. I know some riders have been asking Iljo about me and trying to find out what I’m like. That’s cool with me. Maybe they’re a little jealous and scared but that’s their problem, they don’t need to be scared of me for now."
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