In the time-honoured advertising ritual in the immediate aftermath of the Super Bowl, the most valuable player is ushered over to a television crew and asked the traditional question: “What’s next?” The answer, generously compensated, is the same every time: “I’m going to Disneyland.”
The same query invariably emerges at some point after the elite men’s road race at the UCI Road World Championships, when the newly crowned champion is asked to outline when he will show off his rainbow bands for the first time in competition. Like Disney, the organisers of late-season Classics are usually willing to pay for the honour, after all.
Remco Evenepoel, however, has insisted that he will not pin a race number on his rainbow jersey until 2023 after an intense six-week period that saw him add the Vuelta a España and Worlds road race to his earlier triumph at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, thus completing the most remarkable treble this side of 1999.
“The plan was to put the bike aside. But now that I am world champion, I think I also want to train for another week,” Evenepoel said in Wollongong. “And I can't wait to show this beautiful jersey for the first time in a race next season.”
The appointments on Evenepoel’s calendar from here to the end of the season are, in any case, formal rather than competitive. On October 2, he will be feted at a reception on Brussels’ Grand Place, arranged to honour Belgium’s first elite men’s world champion in a decade and first Grand Tour winner in 44 years. The occasion, like everything is Evenepoel’s gilded career, seems singularly unlikely to be low-key.
“I hope there will be a lot of people and that it won't rain that day, so we can make it a beautiful moment. I love that my city wants to honour me,” Evenepoel said of what he called his “balcony moment.”
That reception would appear to rule out any prospect of Evenepoel donning his rainbow jersey at the previous day’s Giro dell’Emilia, while RCS Sport will be disappointed to learn that a duel against Tadej Pogačar at Il Lombardia the following week was already long out of the question. Evenepoel will marry his partner Oumi on October 9. He laughed at the notion of giving his rainbow jersey an outing there.
“You’re giving me an idea… I'll ask Oumi if she likes that,” Evenepoel said according to Het Nieuwsblad. “But I still think I'm going to have to go get a real suit. I put that pressure entirely on my mother.”
At every rendezvous on the bike next season, of course, all pressure and all eyes will be on Evenepoel’s rainbow jersey. In the days weeks ahead, meanwhile, there will be much scrutiny on his plans for the 2023 campaign after a season for the ages. For all Evenepoel’s élan in one-day races – witness the solo exhibitions in Liège, San Sebastián and Wollongong – most attention will, understandably, focus on his Grand Tour choices in 2023.
In 2021, QuickStep were overly hasty when they thrust Evenepoel into a Grand Tour debut at the Giro d’Italia in his first race back after breaking his pelvis the previous year. The lesson was digested by team and rider alike.
In 2022, Patrick Lefevere had the patience to hold Evenepoel back from three-week racing until the Vuelta, a decision that allowed the Belgian youngster a period of trial and error at races like Tirreno-Adriatico, Itzulia Basque Country and the Tour de Suisse.
For 2023, Lefevere again appears keen to err on the side of caution, downplaying the idea of sending Evenepoel to the Tour de France. A return to the Giro would appear to mark a steadier progression before the Schepdaal native eventually tests himself in the white heat of July.
"We're going to wait for the smoke to clear around our heads before making decisions. We'll sit down with some sensible people and see if we should skip a step or not,” Lefevere told Sporza.
“Because suppose Evenepoel goes to the Tour and it’s not easy, then everyone is ready with the gun to shoot him. As the winner of the Vuelta a España and with that jersey around his shoulders, he can't really afford to go badly.”
Those thoughts were echoed by QuickStep-AlphaVinyl directeur sportif Klaas Lodewyck – “We have always talked about the longer-term and we have to stick to that,” he told Sporza. “Don't skip steps, everything in its time” – but it remains to be seen, of course, if the ever-ambitious Evenepoel sees things in quite the same way.
The casting vote may come down to QuickStep’s new title sponsor Soudal, and while they may wish to see their name on a rainbow jersey at the Tour in 2023, they have also committed to Lefevere’s team for five seasons on the basis of his long-term project around Evenepoel. They may see little reason to influence his thinking at this point.
Wherever Evenepoel starts his 2023 season – and everything from the Vuelta a San Juan, to the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana or Volta ao Algarve is a possibility at this early juncture – a previous Belgian rainbow jersey has firm ideas about where he should spend the winter. Or rather, where he shouldn’t.
“He should stay away from Schepdaal and the surrounding area as much as possible,” Tom Boonen wrote in his column for Het Laatste Nieuws.
“He has a permanent place in Spain to train, right? In his case, I would spend the winter there. He will find much more peace there than in Belgium. Have some family and friends around you and try to isolate yourself.”
Boonen is speaking from experience. In 2005, he landed the rainbow jersey in Madrid after a season that had already seen him claim the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and two stages of the Tour de France. With Lance Armstrong having recently announced his retirement from cycling for the first time, the 24-year-old Boonen found himself being feted as cycling’s biggest star. It was hardly a coincidence that he moved from his home in Balen to Monaco that same winter.
The spotlight was intense in Belgium, but there wasn’t much respite to be had abroad either. In the dizzying weeks after that Worlds triumph, for instance, Vélo Magazine speculated whether Boonen could win Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the future or perhaps even the Tour de France. No goal was too outlandish.
“I was 24 and had won Classics and Monuments, but suddenly I was an international star overnight,” Boonen wrote. “Remco was often solicited by newspapers, magazines and TV shows in recent years, but that was a Belgian phenomenon. Now abroad is also going to pull on his sleeve. Everyone is going to want a piece of him.”
Boonen didn’t develop into a Tour contender, of course, though he demonstrated remarkable longevity in the face of all that expectation. Despite claiming in Madrid that he would retire at the age of 30, Boonen kept racing until 2017, amassing one of the finest Classics palmarès in the history of the sport.
There were, however, some very public mis-steps along the way as he came to terms with his fame. Being the great hope of Belgian cycling is an unforgiving business. Young men who have been feted as the next Merckx – from Fons de Wolf to the late Frank Vandenbroucke – have rarely been able to construct firewalls to protect themselves from the pressures and distractions that come with being the best cyclist in the world’s most cycling-mad nation.
And yet, perhaps Evenepoel is better equipped than most to cope with his status. When Evenepoel swapped football for cycling in April 2017, a television crew showed up to report on one of his first races. A little over a year later, word of his exploits on restricted gears had already made the junior men’s road race essential viewing at the Innsbruck Worlds.
Since turning professional in 2019, his every utterance, his every pedal stroke, has been parsed and analysed by his home press. The 23-year-old has already done his growing up in public. What’s a rainbow jersey?
In a Het Nieuwsblad column before last year’s Worlds in Leuven, Lefevere cast his mind back to Madrid in 2005, admitting that he hadn’t wanted Boonen to win the title.
“Being world champion was too much of a good thing. I was afraid of saturation. Not wrongly, it turned out later,” wrote Lefevere, who added that he had no such qualms about Evenepoel becoming world champion at an even younger age.
Boonen, for his part, suggested on Sunday that the rainbow jersey would serve to inspire Evenepoel rather than inhibit him.
“This is not going to be paralyzing. Not with him. On the contrary, he gets a kick out of this,” Boonen said. “He has an enormous urge to prove himself, and that jersey is going to give him wings.”
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