The 2022 Vuelta a España will be a journey of discovery for Remco Evenepoel. This fascinating next step in his already-illustrious career could quickly confirm him as a future Grand Tour kingpin or suggest that high, steep mountain stages over three weeks may always remain beyond the reach of his cycling talents.
Whatever happens between the opening team time trial in Utrecht on Friday and the final stage to Madrid on September 11, Evenepoel’s performance and his results will be one of the leading storylines of the Vuelta. He is ambitious, on form, and the Flemish media will be optimistically watching his every pedal stroke in the hope of success.
The 22-year-Belgian has built the second half of his 2022 season around the Vuelta a España, spending much of July at altitude and more recently finishing off with a spell at Alexander Kolobnev’s high-altitude hotel near Alicante to be at his very best.
Evenepoel and his QuickStep-AlphaVinyl team are rightly playing down their hopes and ambitions but his victory at the Clásica San Sebastián indicated a superb level of form. He and the Belgian team lack Grand Tour GC racing experience but will surely not be afraid to take on Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), should he decides to defend his Vuelta crown.
"I’ve been training to do something good. A specific GC result is difficult to predict but if I can leave the Vuelta with a stage win or two, then it’d be a good Vuelta. Everything in the GC that comes would be extra," Evenepoel said recently, playing down his hopes.
Of course, Evenepoel is ambitious; it is one of his natural strengths. It is clear that one day he hopes to challenge Tadej Pogačar, Jonas Vingegaard, Egan Bernal and the rest of his generation of super-talents in Grand Tours.
"That’d be a dream…" Evenepoel said, his guard slipping slightly, when asked about taking on his rivals.
"To work towards my big dream, to stand on a Grand Tour podium, you need to push your limits and that’s why we’re going to the Vuelta with this preparation, this approach and the team we’ll have. It’s an adventure. Let’s say it’s like a highway which you don’t know will end. I’m really curious to see where it leads and really looking forward to starting the Vuelta."
Learning from the pain of 2021
Evenepoel was dubbed 'the next Eddy Merckx' when he won the junior world time trial and road race titles in 2018. He turned professional straight from the junior ranks a few months later and lived up to the expectations by winning the Clásica San Sebastián in 2019 and a host of other races.
His terrible crash and pelvis fracture at Il Lombardia in 2020 slowed his development in 2021 and his Grand Tour debut at the Giro d’Italia proved to be rushed, overhyped even by his own team, and ultimately lacked foundation. He started strong and seemed to love duelling with Bernal but then faded after 10 days and eventually quit before the high mountains.
The Giro d’Italia and then the tension in Belgium after last year’s World Championships debacle with Wout van Aert appeared to unsettle Evenepoel. However, he appears to have found a new found maturity. A winter of quality training away from the spotlight produced a different, calmer personality as he re-confirmed his incredible cycling talents. His victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège after QuickStep-AlphaVinyl’s poor spring was a huge moment in his career, as his tears at the finish confirmed.
The Vuelta a España could be the next big moment in Evenepoel’s amazing career, even if he and QuickStep-AlphaVinyl have learned to keep their ambitions in check.
"If he shows ambition, he is seen as arrogant. If he fails, he’s killed. In the long run, you keep that ambition to yourself," team manager Patrick Lefevere told Het Laatste Nieuws on Friday, without a hint of mea culpa.
"The first goal is to leave the Netherlands unscathed. A first evaluation will only be made after the stage 10 time trial in Alicante. If he’s still in good shape, he can say: 'Now we're really going to go for it'."
Evenepoel proved he is back to his best with victory at Liège and he has since worked on his fitness, racing weight, power and recovery to build a solid base for the Vuelta.
"It’s actually pointless to compare the Remco of the Giro with the Remco that will soon ride the Vuelta. He has become a completely different rider," Lefevere suggested.
Team coach Koen Pelgrim revealed exactly how different when speaking to Het Nieuwsblad.
"Last year [for the Giro d’Italia] the preparation time was very short. He had a long rehab and we had about three months to get him ready. This year he was able to enjoy a flawless winter and then an almost complete cycling season," Pelgrim said.
"The result is that Evenepoel will soon be able to fall back on a much broader basic condition. He tested his form in San Sebastián and the result was clear. Such a broader base should enable him to recover faster, perform more stably and maintain his fitness level for three weeks. Last year he was at the start in Turin with doubts. That’s not be the case this year."
Evenepoel indicated before winning San Sebastián that he had honed his strength-to-weight ratio and learnt how to manage his nutrition better, while a full season of training and racing has naturally improved his metabolism for Grand Tour racing.
His accelerations and top-end power are no longer a weakness, while his time trial prowess is still world class. The Vuelta will reveal if Evenepoel has the climbing ability for the steep finishes of the Vuelta and the endurance and mindset for three weeks of daily racing.
"The first percentages of fitness are added the fastest, but the last ones take the longest. We have now been able to take the time to find a better balance," Pelgrim claimed.
"The Vuelta is his second Grand Tour, that gives him more peace of mind. He now knows what is coming his way."
A Vuelta strategy and a long-term view
Evenepoel will have the support of a strong QuickStep-AlphaVinyl team that includes world champion Julian Alaphilippe and probably Mauri Vansevenant, Dries Devenyns, Fausto Masnada and Tim Declercq.
Evenepoel and QuickStep-AlphaVinyl’s Vuelta strategy will be to gain time with a strong team time trial in Utrecht and then even more in the Alicante individual time trial on stage 10. From there, it will be about defending any advantage and GC position in the race’s toughest mountains in the second week.
Stage 15 to Sierra Nevada will arguably be Evenepoel’s biggest test. It is the only stage to finish at more than 2,000 metres above sea level and the only stage with more than 4,000 metres of vertical climbing. Sierra Nevada is also the only Hors-Categorie ascent of the entire race. It is more than 30 kilometres long and includes a lengthy, narrow, ultra-hard middle section of Hazallanas, which averages around 12%.
If Evenepoel can survive the day in the Sierra Nevada and stay well placed into the easier third week, he has a chance of holding any GC gains on Carapaz, Yates and anyone else.
If he cracks and his stage race credentials take a hit, like they did at Tirreno-Adriatico or the Tour de Suisse, Lefevere will refuse to write off Evenepoel’s and perhaps his own team’s long-term Grand Tour ambitions.
"That would be all too easy. He's only 22," Lefevere argued.
"The problem is that people have short memories. Just five years ago he was not a rider and because of that bad crash in Lombardy he lost another year in his development. His contract runs until the end of 2026. Until then, he'll get all the credit and time to develop he deserves."
Either way, seeing where that highway begins to lead - as Evenepoel would have it - will be one of the defining narratives of this Vuelta a España.
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