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Evenepoel: Vuelta a San Juan gives me a lot of confidence

Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Remco Evenepoel receives the leader’s jersey after retaining it on stage 4 of the 2020 Vuelta a San Juan
Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Remco Evenepoel in the leader’s jersey after retaining it on stage 4 of the 2020 Vuelta a San Juan (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Remco Evenepoel seems destined to claim bigger victories in his career, but it is unlikely he will ever win a bigger trophy than the one handed to him on the final podium of the Vuelta a San Juan.

"It will be really difficult to take this one on the plane," Evenepoel said after the ceremonies on Sunday evening, nodding at the outsized spoils that his Deceuninck-QuickStep press officer placed carefully on the floor beside him. "I don't know if we'll have enough space in the boxes to bring it home."

Even before Evenepoel arrived in the professional peloton a year ago, some dizzying projections were being made about his eventual palmarès. That far-off future already seems to be bleeding into the present. If ninth place in Argentina 12 months ago was an indication of promise, then the manner of his overall victory here felt closer to a warning of further and imminent success.

"This is my first big win of the year. This result gives me a lot of confidence and I hope to continue this good run," said Evenepoel, though he will face pelotons of greater depth as the year progresses. Only six WorldTour teams were on hand in Argentina in a peloton composed largely of Continental and national teams from South America.

"It is a very tough race here," Evenepoel said. "It's especially difficult because you are competing against teams that you would otherwise never encounter. Those national selections make it extra difficult in the race."

Evenepoel was perhaps referring to how he was caught on the wrong side of a split when the peloton broke up on the approach to Alto Colorado on stage 5, something he blamed on two riders from the Brazilian squad allowing a gap to open. "It was a mistake but also not a mistake," he said the following day, in the gnomic manner of Johan Cruyff.

Having trained in Calpe for much of the spring, the 20-year-old is expected to prepare at home in Belgium for his next appointment, the Volta ao Algarve, which takes place from February 19-23. The route features two uphill finishes and a time trial on the final day, and Evenepoel will have a chance to measure himself against riders like Geraint Thomas (Ineos) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) in Portugal.

Tirreno-Adriatico and the Ardennes Classics follow, as Evenepoel builds towards his Grand Tour debut at the Giro d'Italia. Since confirming his participation in the race last month, he has been repeatedly reminded that he could wear the maglia rosa at an earlier age than Fausto Coppi if he wins the opening day time trial in Hungary.

"Hopefully, it would be really nice, but I'm not going to say I'm really focusing on that because I'm just going from race to race and I have some other big races to do before," Evenepoel said. "I will just try to do my best, be ready and in shape, and then I will ride 10km in Budapest as hard as possible."

Messi

Evenepoel's remarkable run of early success has, inevitably, seen him compared to Eddy Merckx in his home country. Although he has appeared less fazed at being dubbed the Second Coming than some other young Belgian riders who have come before him, Evenepoel admitted that he is not overly enamoured with the comparison.

"I prefer this than people calling me Eddy Merckx," Evenepoel said on a Sunday, when a local reporter suggested that he should be dubbed chico maravilla, or Boy Wonder. "I just try to be myself and be the best version of myself. I'm keeping my feet on the ground. I have a really good team around me to help me with this. I'm quite confident that I will still be the same at the end of my career."

On the podium in San Juan, Evenepoel received an even higher accolade, at least from an Argentinian point of view. With a nod to his footballing background, he was handed an Argentina jersey, with his name and the number 10 printed on the back, while the speaker attempted to lead the crowd in a chant of 'Remco, olé,' as though this were a football stadium.

"The crowds were amazing, they gave me goosebumps," Evenepoel said, but he shook off the idea that he was the Lionel Messi of cycling. "I'm Remco Evenepoel," he said.