Eddy Merckx has backed Remco Evenepoel to perform strongly at the 2020 Giro d’Italia, although he stopped short of predicting whether the 20-year-old can contend overall victory on his Grand Tour debut.
Evenepoel continued his remarkable start to 2020 by winning atop the Alto da Fóia on stage 2 of the Volta ao Algarve on Thursday to take hold of the race lead. The Belgian has already won the Vuelta a San Juan last month.
Merckx watched Evenepoel’s victory in Portugal on television and was contacted afterwards by Het Nieuwsblad to provide an assessment of the youngster and his prospects over three weeks.
"We have to wait," Merckx said when asked about Evenepoel’s Giro hopes. "To start with, the cols in Italy are much steeper than what he has already tackled. The percentages of the gradients are much higher.
"But based on what he is already showing, it should not be a problem. I also don't see why he can’t handle a three-week race. Can he already participate for the overall victory? Call me back after the Giro…"
Merckx made his Grand Tour debut as a 21-year-old on the 1967 Giro, placing 9th overall and winning two stages in a race won by Felice Gimondi. "I had to compete with many established names at the time, it was a journey of discovery for me," said Merckx, who returned a year later and landed the first of his record 11 Grand Tour victories by beating Vittorio Adorni and Gimondi to the maglia rosa.
Evenepoel has been repeatedly compared with Merckx since he claimed the European junior road race title by 10 minutes in 2018. He later added the World Championships before skipping the under-23 ranks to turn professional with Deceuninck-QuickStep last season.
He made an immediate impact, winning the Clásica San Sebastian and the European elite time trial title in his debut campaign, as well as taking a silver medal in the elite Worlds time trial and overall victory at the Tour of Belgium.
Evenepoel has continued in the fashion in 2020, and Merckx lauded the strength that carried him clear of a group that included Vincenzo Nibali and Dan Martin atop the Alto da Fóia on Thursday.
"His teammate [João Almeida – ed.] prepared that perfectly with a high pace. Nobody could attack," Merckx said. "And then his acceleration in the last five hundred metres: in a big gear, using his power. We asked ourselves when he turned pro if he would be able to accelerate in a big gear, but that is now clear. Remco has what we call a 'big suitcase', so there is a lot of power in that man.
"He already showed in South America last month that he has had a strong preparation. The Grand Tour contenders are still building up to their top condition, but they already know how impressive this young man is."
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