“We cannot compare the rider I was back then at the  Giro d’Italia with the rider I am now,” Remco Evenepoel said in his video call press conference on the second rest day of the Vuelta a España on Monday.
Back then, it all started so well, with him sat second overall mid-race. Then, he lost time on the gravel-flecked stage to Montalcino, dropped out of contention and quit the race following a crash after seventeen stages of his debut Grand Tour. His debut was a “voyage in the dark” that proved difficult.
Fifteen months later, 40 journalists hung on his every word as the red jersey of Vuelta a España leader rested on a hanger on his hotel wall behind him.
After several commanding showings in the mountains, Evenepoel is the talk of the Vuelta. He is 1:12 ahead of Enric Mas, with defending champion Primož Roglič in third, 1:53 behind.
“Being first with a nice advantage going into the time trial, it's the best way to get into the rest day, I think,” he said. “We really didn’t plan this, you never plan something, but it’s better like this than being two or three minutes behind.”
Before the race start in Utrecht, the Belgian boy wonder set his aims as a stage win and top-ten finish on GC, and he is not getting carried away, in public at least: “I’m not changing my goal. In my opinion, it’s my first real Grand Tour … and I still don’t have my stage win, so that’s the biggest goal.”
He might say that, but even his closest rival Enric Mas has called him the strongest in the race. The Vuelta overall win is his for the taking. Evenepoel has ridden rivals off his wheel on mountain finishes at Pico Jano and Les Praeres this week. Will he ride in the same way?
“I asked for turns, but if they don’t want to work… I asked for turns with Enric, I got some advice from inside the team to stay calm even if they don’t want to and just do my own thing. That's what I did the first mountain stages,” he said.
Evenepoel has not looked fully extended yet on the toughest gradients, but he said the Vuelta’s changeable conditions and racing have taken a toll on him too. “It has been a really hard week, I’m not going to lie about that. The rest day was very welcome, everybody was happy to have it because the weather was really strange in the north of Spain, from really cold days to quite warm, humid days, which are really hard to manage.”
He also looked ahead to stage 15, which finishes on Sierra Nevada at 2,512 metres and could be pivotal. Evenepoel knows the route well, as will most rivals, given the location’s popularity with WorldTour teams. “The [final] Sierra climb is not the hardest one, it's just really long and it's the altitude that might be the most difficult to handle.
“But that’s what I’ve been training for the whole month of July and the beginning of August. In Livigno, I slept around 2,300 [metres] and in the SyncroSfera [hotel which offers altitude rooms], I slept a bit above it. I’m not going to say the number,” he said, smiling. “I’ve been preparing with a lot of altitude, we know it works well for me. But we’ll see, Sunday is still long off.”
The QuickStep-AlphaVinyl captain expanded on the type of hard work and preparation he has been doing to get into scintillating shape for the Vuelta. It comes down to hot temperatures, hard hills and cursing his trainer, essentially.
“You have to get used to sitting on the bike with the front wheel almost on top of your nose. It's a very specific way of riding your bike and the area of Alicante is pretty known for having steep climbs like Cumbre del Sol and Miserat,” he said.
“Those were the days that I really hated myself – or my coach because it was not so nice to train on those climbs. But in the end, it pays off. I’ve been working really hard towards this Vuelta, it's far from over yet but I think if you work for it and keep believing in yourself and don’t give up easily, it will pay off.”
Tuesday’s 30.9km time trial from Elche to Alicante is an opportunity to extend his lead on a course Evenepoel knows inside out from training. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow. It’s completely flat, even going more down than up,” he said. “Only in the last three kilometres, there is a 1km climb which can make it really hard, because you’ll already be full of lactate after 30 minutes of full gas,.”
As Evenepoel moves deeper into this race in the ascendancy, the challenge intensifies for QuickStep-AlphaVinyl. The squad has never won a Grand Tour in their current incarnation.
“It’s a new thing for us, a new expedition, I would say,” Evenepoel said. He bookended his press conference with compliments for his team, saving his longest answer to praise his teammates.
“If everybody saw what they did the last two days, the real mountain stages, I think we really showed our strength and a different type of ‘Wolfpack’. I think it was more known for the Classics races, but what we showed this weekend was really special,” he said.
Road captain Dries Devenyns, helping him during the race, and world champion Julian Alaphilippe came in for special tribute. “Like yesterday’s final descent [on stage 9], if you see how Julian deals with that, it’s like sitting on the couch behind him,” he said, grinning. “You just have to follow him and you know everything will be alright. I didn’t see many world champions doing stuff like he does.”
“They all know they are super important to me, off and on the bike. I think it’s just a really special team. And if you see the numbers that we always have on the final climb, I think we're maybe together with Ineos [Grenadiers] the most numbered team on the final climb. If you see the final of Saturday [stage 8], we were there with four guys, including myself.”
Fans might be getting used to seeing Evenepoel in the leader’s maillot rojo, but the young man himself is certainly not impervious to it: “I’m not going to say you get emotional, but you have a feeling of pride. Wearing a leader’s jersey in a Grand Tour is something you need to deserve and earn.”
“As for looking at it in my hotel room? I hope I can do that at home in a few weeks, but it’s still a very long way before that.”
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