In Ravenna before stage 13 of the Giro d'Italia, Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere reminded reporters of Remco Evenepoel's limited experience as a cyclist: "Don't forget that five years ago this kid was a football player."
In some ways, Evenepoel still is, at least in terms of his media interactions, which seem to have more in common with Erling Haaland or Cristiano Ronaldo than with Tom Boonen or Johan Museeuw. Every sound-bite from the preternaturally articulate Evenepoel is a potential headline, but he is careful to dispense them more sparingly than his predecessors in the Belgian peloton.
From the moment he started racing a bike, Evenepoel has done things on his own terms. Why change now?
On Friday, word was relayed to the mixed zone that Evenepoel would not be available for interviews ahead of the stage, to the understandable chagrin of the sizeable contingent from Belgium, who are here expressly to cover his Grand Tour debut. By way of compensation, Lefevere came to the area behind the podium to speak on his young rider's behalf.
Evenepoel's concession of two minutes on the gravel roads of Montalcino on stage 11 saw him slip to seventh place overall, and raised old questions about his technical skills. Lefevere insisted that any unease on the gravel stemmed from Evenepoel's inexperience and not from the psychological impact of his dramatic crash at last year's Il Lombardia.
"No, because he did a race of this kind before the crash, at Adriatica Ionica [in 2019 – ed.] and he lost six minutes on three sectors of gravel. He couldn't stay on the bike but the next day he won by three minutes," said Lefevere.
He noted that Evenepoel would seek help from MotoGP rider and cycling enthusiast Cal Crutchlow to improve his bike handling. "He is a fan of the team and knows Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen well. Probably during an off period, we'll try to ask for his help."
Evenepoel's stablemate João Almeida was ordered to wait for the struggling Evenepoel on the road to Montalcino and after the stage, he expressed his frustration obliquely to Portuguese newspaper A Bola.
"I'd rather be silent than say what I think," said Almeida – an echo, perhaps, of how his fellow countryman José Mourinho pointedly "preferred not to speak" about refereeing decisions that went against him.
"Unfortunately, for João, he lost five or six minutes in the first mountain stage, otherwise he could have ridden for his own classification. But we agreed before the Giro that the guy in the lead would be protected," said Lefevere.
"Of course, the Portuguese press said that he was not happy. He said also to me he had diamond legs and could have been in the front. That's true, but his classification was lost already and they couldn't have caught the break, so what does it serve being fifth when you can help your leader? In situations like that, I think you have to help your leader."
Despite those travails on the sterrato in Tuscany, Evenepoel remains in the general classification picture of this Giro, 2:22 off the pink jersey of Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers).
Lefevere is preaching caution, telling Sporza that he could even be withdrawn from the Giro if the team felt he became too fatigued, but Evenepoel was upbeat about his powers of recovery when he spoke at the finish of stage 13 in Verona, where he finished safely in the peloton.
"I don't have much of an explanation for it. I hope that was my worst day, then it's not so bad," Evenepoel said of his losses at Montalcino, before casting his mind forward to Saturday's finale on Monte Zoncolan, the highest point of the race to date and the steepest of the entire Giro.
"I've never had a finish with such high percentages. By those last steep stretches, we're going to be on our limits and grinding up it. It's a mythical mountain and everyone has a healthy stress about it."
While Evenepoel impressed throughout the Giro's opening 10 days, he struggled to follow some of the sharper accelerations on the early uphill finishes. It is perhaps an obvious consequence of his nine months away from racing before this Giro, and he knows that he will be hard-pressed to match Bernal on those vertiginous final three kilometres of the Zoncolan, where the gradient touches 27 per cent.
"For me, the attacks can happen earlier. Accelerating in that last kilometre requires a lot of explosiveness and that is not my strongest point. Especially when I see how Bernal is flying around in that last kilometre... Then I have a problem," Evenepoel laughed.
"I don't know what to expect, but the freshness is better. Yesterday and today I had a better feeling. For now, I want to secure my position in the GC, keeping the final time trial in mind. Winning the final classification will be difficult since Bernal is so strong."
Evenepoel went on to describe Bernal as "even stronger than when he won the Tour de France," suggesting that the maglia rosa's team would dictate the terms of engagement on the Zoncolan and beyond.
"It's hard to have a plan," Evenepoel said. "We have seen how strong Ineos are. They will make the race, so it's up to us to follow."
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.