Remco Evenepoel returned to Il Lombardia a year after the terrible crash into a ravine that left him with a fractured pelvis and disrupted his 2021 season. He was able to overcome the emotions of it all but a moment of weakness meant he was unable to make an impact on the race as Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) went on the attack to win in Bergamo.
Ever ambitious and on form in the final races of the season, Evenepoel had harboured hopes of victory and was expected to make one of his now trademark long-range attacks. However, he struggled mid-race, suffered on the key late climb and finished 19th at 3:13 between different chase groups.
Evenepoel was unable to respond when the race exploded on the Passo di Ganda when Pogačar made his attack and, like teammate João Almeida, he was not there to help Fausto Masnada and Julian Alaphilippe.
"It was a strange feeling to race here again, on nervous roads. A little bit of what happened was on my mind," Evenepoel admitted at the door of the Deceuninck-QuickStep team bus parked in a Bergamo side street.
"My body was shaking a bit the whole morning but during the race, it got better and better. On the first descent, I didn't feel really comfortable but after that, I never got into trouble on the descent, only when I was behind Benoit Cosnefroy when he crashed and the bunch split.
"I'm happy to finish the race in the top 20. And we're second with the team (Masnada's result). We wanted to win but second behind the winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour de France is not a bad result.
"I'm not too disappointed. Everything revolves around the legs. If you don't have the legs at such a moment, then you have to accept it. It's life."
Evenepoel struggled to explain what happened to him.
"I had bad legs for five minutes," he said, unclear if it was a lack of power to match his rivals or a lack of energy during the 239km race and 4500 metres of climbing.
"After that, I chose my own pace because it was going too fast for me but I could see the first group riding but they just rode faster in front."
"At the end of the (Passo di Ganda) climb I even came back a bit and in Bergamo, I felt really good again. Maybe my legs had cooled down after that long descent towards the Ganda and that blocked me a bit and is why I couldn't follow the pace. But that's life and cycling. You have to be 100 per cent all day and I wasn't for a few minutes."
Evenepoel has endured a roller coaster 2021 season, mixing results with polemics and straight-talking.
His comeback was delayed until the Giro d'Italia after pain in his pelvis during the winter. Expectations were sky-high in the Giro but he lost time on the dirt roads and then faded day after day, eventually quitting the race before stage 18.
He bounced back to win the Tour of Belgium but was not at his best at the Tokyo Olympics. He won again at the Tour of Denmark and two Belgian semi-Classics to secure a place in the Belgian team for the world championships and was second in the European road race championships and third in the time trial.
He was strong at the World Championships, finishing third in the time trial but was forced into a domestique role in the road race in support of Wout van Aert. He initially accepted it and rode hard early in the race, only to claim a few days after that he could have won.
The war of words is still ongoing with Van Aert but for now, Evenepoel wants to switch off for a while, enjoy some holidays and come back in 2022 after a full winter of training.
"I think we can be happy with our second place here and with our season. Now it's time for some holidays," he concluded before disappearing back into the safe haven of the team bus, symbolically bringing down the curtain on 2021.
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