Julian Alaphilippe and Remco Evenepoel promised to join forces to try to take on Tadej Pogačar at Tirreno-Adriatico, hoping the strength in depth of the QuickStep-AlphaVinyl team can somehow equal the young Slovenian’s incredible spring form.
"We all know who the guy is to beat this week," Evenepoel said of Pogačar on Sunday afternoon, fully aware of how he had dominated Strade Bianche and earned even more admiration from the likes of Eddy Merckx.
"If you see him riding the races he did, he looks quite unbeatable," Evenepoel added before subsequently adding a caveat and refusing to play down his own chances.
"Last year at the Tour of Flanders, everyone thought [Mathieu] Van der Poel would win. We always have to believe in ourselves, even if there is one guy better than all the others," Evenepoel said.
"It’s actually an honour to race with such a big talent and rider, it’s nice to tell the grandkids someday who you raced with. It’s only a pleasure, but sometimes it’s a lot of pain as well."
Cycling destiny and career paths mean Pogačar and Evenepoel have never raced against each other in a stage race. In 2021, Evenepoel rode the Giro d’Italia and Pogačar won a second Tour de France.
Their first showdown makes for an interesting duel and will no doubt be the battle of the seven-day Italian race. This season Evenepoel dominated the Volta ao Algarve, while Pogačar won the UAE Tour before his Strade Bianche solo victory.
"This race is a bigger challenge than the other ones," Evenepoel suggested, noting how the season has stepped up upon entering March.
"I am here to develop, open my eyes, and put in some nice performances in the next couple of days."
This 57th edition of Tirreno-Adriatico has a new race profile, with the short seafront time trial on stage 1 instead of the last day. There are plenty of short and steep uphill finishes to fight for precious seconds and time bonuses but no big mountain-top finish.
Next Saturday’s penultimate stage includes a double climb of Monte Carpegna before a fast descent to the finish. It is the queen stage but Monday’s time trial will create the first time gaps and reveal who can ride defensively and who will have to go on the attack.
World time trial champion Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) is the favourite for the stage 1 victory but Evenepoel hopes to run him close and gain some seconds on a still-tired Pogačar. QuickStep-AlphaVinyl will also target the sprint stages with Mark Cavendish, while Alaphilippe and Kasper Asgreen could be a threat on hillier stages.
"It’s the same thing as racing against Pogačar, he’s the best in the world," Evenepoel said of his chances of even beating Ganna for the stage win.
"I will try to compete against him as fast as possible. We will see what it brings. I feel good in my legs and in the head, so I hope to make his life quite difficult.
"Then if you lose time you have to be aggressive. It’s not long enough to make big, big differences. Everyone can ride 14km quite fast."
Alaphilippe sat alongside his young teammate as he talked of their battle with Pogačar. He admitted his Strade Bianche somersault had left him with some back pain and appointments for long sessions with the team osteopath and soigneur, but he swore allegiance to helping Evenepoel take on Pogačar and anyone else at Tirreno-Adriatico.
"Pogačar was outstanding at Strade Bianche, just like he was at the UAE Tour. He was stronger than all the peloton and I could only watch him attack and go away when he went. But I’m happy for him," Alaphilippe said.
"I’d said that I would start the season not at 100 per cent, and I am building my shape to be on the top soon. I’ll be pushing for the next days and the next months."
Alaphillipe will not ride the Cobbled classics this spring, opting to target the Ardennes Classics later in April. March will be about enjoying his racing, going for stage victories and helping Evenepoel this next week.
"Remco knows why he is here, and everyone will be all around him," Alaphilippe promised.
"We will never ride against each other," Evenepoel said in return, keen to play down any rivalry or a return to the sort of internal tensions experienced with fellow Belgian Wout van Aert at the World Championships.
"People think we’re rivals but we can race together. We’ve already done it. We’ll never ride against each other, we’re good friends," Evenepoel said.
"He is my idol. I would never do anything stupid to make Julian lose a race - never."
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.