It says a lot that, in the most successful team in the peloton, the most in-demand rider is an 18-year-old that few had even heard of 12 months ago. Yet such is the impact made by Remco Evenepoel in the year-and-a-half or so since he took up the sport, he already seems a bigger attraction than the likes of former world champion and four-time Monument winner Philippe Gilbert.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step held their 2019 team presentation in Calpe, Spain, on Tuesday, and the young Belgian was constantly stalked by the cameras, with a list of interview requests that almost matched the rest of the riders put together.
"I’m just a Belgian guy who is doing what he enjoys – riding bikes," Evenepoel said, making it all sound so simple.
"Actually, I’m going to say it how it is: I don’t care about it. All the press and all the media attention, I don’t think about it, I’m just busy with my job."
Yet there have been times where it has affected him, not least in the aftermath of the World Championships, when Evenepoel revealed that the Belgian press had gone as far as to seek out his girlfriend in school.
"I think it was abused. For sure, for my girlfriend it was not nice. That was too much," he said.
"Now I think things have calmed down, it’s better now. That’s just how it goes in Belgium. If there’s a good cyclist in the country, everyone becomes crazy."
What has made everyone so ‘crazy’ about Evenepoel is not just the victories last year – or even the manner of them – but the astonishing speed of his rise. He only obtained a racing licence mid-way through 2017, before dominating the junior races in 2018 in a way has drawn comparisons to ‘the cannibal’ Eddy Merckx – comparisons that were once again rejected on Tuesday.
Evenepoel’s father, Patrick, was a professional cyclist with the Collstrop team, but he advised his son not to take up cycling from a young age, concerned about the stress on the bones and the body. Instead, Evenepoel played football, and to a high level, too. He spent time in the youth academies of Anderlecht and PSV Eindhoven, and played for the Belgian national team up to under-16 level. Shortly after leaving Anderlecht, he swapped boots for wheels, and insists cycling was his greater passion all along.
"I was just playing soccer because my parents didn’t want me to go to cycling from young age," he says.
"We always watched cycling on TV, every Sunday, Flanders, Roubaix. I never watched soccer on TV – always cycling. I think my love for cycling was bigger than for soccer. For sure the guy who I was looking up to was Tom Boonen. He was really on his top level – I saw him win his fourth Paris-Roubaix. Also [Alberto] Contador, in 2009, 2010, when he was winning like almost all the Grand Tours."
Evenepoel’s performances in 2018 were hard to ignore, and it wasn’t long before the WorldTour teams came knocking. Despite reported interest from Team Sky, he signed for Quick-Step in July, just after he’d won the European Championships junior road race by almost 10 minutes.
Evenepoel, who 12 months ago had agreed to join Axel Merckx’s development team in 2019, will therefore jump straight to the WorldTour after only one full season, bypassing the under-23 ranks altogether.
The saying goes that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough, but the wisdom of the decision has been called into question in certain corners.
"I talked with a lot of people who know a lot about cycling, and they told me ‘just do it, because you’re good enough to be in the pro peloton’," Evenepoel said.
"There were more people who are successful in cycling who told me to do it. The other ones, who are not so successful, they said ‘don’t do it’. Maybe they were jealous, you never know. Here in the team, they told me to do it, and if they tell me to do it, I don’t have to hesitate."
Not scared - curious
Evenepoel will make his professional racing debut at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina later this month. Keeping in mind his age, he will race a modest calendar in 2019, with the UAE Tour in February, followed by two one-day races in Belgium in March – Nokere Koerse and Handzame Classic – ahead of the Volta a Catalunya.
Normally, neo-pro campaigns are about learning the ropes – especially so for someone who skips the under-23’s – but there is a sense that normal rules don’t apply to Evenepoel. He is even talking about seeing if he can be up there with the leading riders on the summit finish in the UAE Tour, on what will be his WorldTour debut.
"I’m not going to say I’m scared, I’m looking forward to it because I really want to know how it feels to be in best peloton in the world," he said. "The guys told me I don’t have to be scared because my level is pretty good – they can feel it in training also. They have so much experience that they can see how a rider is riding. They tell me I’m in good shape already now. I have still two months before my first WorldTour race and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m not scared but I’m curious.”
Evenepoel does not seem scared by much at all. He certainly doesn’t appear fazed in the slightest by his stardom, speaking – in three languages – with a surprising level of self-assuredness, which belies his years but stays on the right side of arrogance.
He describes himself as “just a kid” but is also keenly aware of the level of his talent.
"Gilbert has been world champion and I’m just a kid – riding next to him in training is really crazy," he says, discussing how much he’s learned from his short spell in the team so far.
"Every rider has his own story, I think it’s really important to know how everyone came to the top. For me it’s maybe a little bit easier than some guys, but it’s really nice to know how everyone worked his way to the top. It’s motivating also when you know someone who has worked really a lot to come to the top. It’s nice to know that, okay, I have a little bit more talent than the other guys, so I have less years to go to the top, but now it’s my turn to show I have enough talent to be with the pros."
As for the long-term vision, one of the reasons Evenepoel played down the Merckx comparisons was that in modern cycling, he argued, it’s unrealistic for a rider to win across the board – from all manner of Classics to the Grand Tours. Despite winning a number of one-day races in the juniors, including Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Evenepoel does not see himself as a Classics rider – at least not a cobbled Classics rider – but as potentially Belgium’s first Grand Tour winner since the 1970s.
"I have a good time trial, but I’m also a lightweight, so I don’t think I will do well on the cobbles. I hope to be a GC rider for sure. I think that’s also the focus for the team – we really want to work forward for the GC, and for sure the Grand Tours, in the long view.
"My big dream is to win a Grand Tour. That’s the biggest dream."