If you needed two words to sum up Remco Evenepoel's feelings at running second overall in the Giro d'Italia, in what is the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider's first bike race in nearly nine months, "satisfaction" would surely be one of them. The other one would be "surprised".
Speaking during his rest day press conference on Tuesday, the Belgian said he had recently seen a "small reminder" on his mobile phone that "exactly three months ago, I was still not training outside, still on the rollers and going to the gym to get muscles and core stability back to a good level.
"When I'm racing here I don't think about it that much, but when I'm on the bus, I think 'wow, this is your first Grand Tour'. It's quite crazy that I'm up there with the best climbers after three months of training and six or seven months of nothing. It's amazing what I'm doing right now."
Ten days into the Giro d'Italia, Evenepoel is currently lying second overall, 14 seconds back on race leader Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers).
But he warned, too, that as this is the longest he has ever spent racing in a single event, there was no predicting what could happen between here and Milan.
"Maybe in this next press conference next week, I'll be 10th," he said. "For now everything is going well, but after nine months without racing, I can't predict how I will feel."
If failing to live up to the steadily-rising tide of expectations is one possible outcome for Evenepoel in his first Grand Tour, at the other end of the spectrum of results, is, of course, winning it outright.
Given his performance so far, it's perhaps not surprising that on the first rest day press conference he was asked point-blank by a leading cycling journalist from the Netherlands if he thought he could do just that and be in the pink jersey in Milan in 12 days.
"That's a typical Dutch question," he fired back with a grin and perhaps a reference to the reputation people from Holland have in some parts of Europe for being blunt at times. "Let's say if I didn't believe it myself I wouldn't be at the start. So that's not a 'yes', that's not a 'no', that's a 'maybe'."
The paths to any victory in the Giro d'Italia, hypothetical or otherwise, are as varied as the race itself. But when Evenepoel was asked about the importance of being an all-rounder in modern-day Grand Tours, interestingly he opted to flag up time trialling star of Tom Dumoulin's (Jumbo-Visma) path to his Giro d'Italia victory in 2017 as an example.
"When Dumoulin won the Giro, it came down to the last stage, he wasn't in pink and then after the finish he won it," Evenepoel pointed out. "You can be wearing the maglia rosa for 20 stages. But it's the guy who is wearing maglia rosa after stage 21 is the guy who wins the Giro."
Duel with Bernal
Evenepoel's comments will surely be interpreted in some quarters as a veiled reference to Bernal, already in pink on the first rest day. After all, although the Colombian has being unreachable so far in the climbs, Evenepoel has proved to be the better racer against the clock, in the Giro's one time trial so far in Turin, and may well hope to turn the tables on Bernal again in Milan on stage 21.
Having the Giro's second time trial on the very last day, Evenepoel said, would have a definite influence on the way the whole event was raced, "because some guys who aren't so good in the mountains have to attack more to get time, and some guys who good in a time trial can follow wheels. For me, it would have been better if we had a time trial in the middle of the Giro like last year, but that's not happened, so that's life. This time we've got a 30-kilometre, 40-minute effort on the last day, and that's good, too."
But while Evenepoel may have had the upper hand on Bernal in the opening TT, such was Evenepoel's concentration on his performance in the Giro, he claimed, that he did not know that Bernal was taking part in the race until 24 hours before Turin.
"I didn't even look at the start list until the day before it began. I had nothing in my head at that point except that I was finally getting to do my first Grand Tour," the 21-year-old said. "But when I did read that he was coming, it felt good. Egan is the winner of a Tour de France, and it's always an honour to participate in an event with riders like him."
A certain segment of the media has reduced the 2021 Giro to a straight duel between the Colombian and the Belgian, and even more so, if that was possible, after their slightly bizarre tussle for bonus seconds late on Monday's stage.
"For me, the most important thing is not to lose too much time, so every second I can gain is one second less, and this is why I went for the bonus," Evenepoel commented on Tuesday, to try and explain a skirmish which has, thanks to the two protagonists being who they are, earned pages of media coverage.
"Once I 'd started riding for it I didn't want to stop, I didn't want to cause some crashes by braking suddenly, and it was quite fun to do a small race with Egan."
Yet despite some media honing in on the two young stars in the Giro d'Italia and their current lofty positions in the overall, Evenepoel rightly reasoned that, "everybody in the top 10 who is at a minute or less, I think all those guys haven't lost the race yet. It's always nice to be closest to the leader, but everybody knows that in the last week, this isn't going to end being decided by seconds, but by minutes."
Sterrata and QuickStep
If the time trials and mountains are where the Giro d'Italia will be won, Evenepoel argued, then for many pundits, Wednesday's stage through the sterrata was one where it could be lost.
Asked how he will race there, he answered simply, "I don't know, I never did a race like this, I really don't know. I asked this morning if we could do a section in training, but the mechanics were not too happy, as they will have a lot of work tomorrow evening, so I just went for a small lap around the village.
"The weather tomorrow [Wednesday] could be quite warm, there may be a lot of dust. It'll be possible to gain time but easy to lose time. I'm not sure if there will be big differences but I'm expecting a big battle."
In a laudably lengthy press conference, Evenepoel had time to express his delight that QuickStep will continue to sponsor the team for another six years after the news was officially made public during his time fielding questions from the media. He also provided a detailed analysis on how far he has progressed since that terrible crash back in the Giro di Lombardia of 2020.
"After my crash and long break, I had to do a lot of hours on the bike to make sure I could complete the Giro stages feeling good, and so far I've felt OK," he added. "I have started feeling my legs a bit in the last two days, but I just hope everybody else did, too.
"In the end though, I'm just happy after one week in first Grand Tour to be second behind the Tour de France winner. It's like a dream. I'm very happy where I am and where we [Deceuninck-QuickStep] are right now."
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