Space is already at a premium in the mixed zone at the Giro d'Italia and the imminent arrival of Remco Evenepoel in the narrow area behind the signing-on podium was always likely to stretch adherence to social distancing norms, with reporters cramming into place along the barriers as they waited for him before stage 7 on Friday morning.
Evenepoel arrived in the white jersey – "It's nice to wear it, but it's not mine, it belongs to Attila Valter," he said – and a mesh of microphones duly knotted before him. The previous afternoon, he had looked poised to take the maglia rosa at San Giacomo, but he fell just short of the garment after placing fourth on the stage.
The Belgian still set off from Notaresco as the best-placed of the overall favourites, just 11 seconds behind Valter and five ahead of Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers). The race is still young, but the morning's edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport was already beginning to couch this Giro as a duel between Evenepoel and Bernal.
"I'm not disappointed not to have taken the pink jersey, the Giro is still long," Evenepoel said. "I saw a very good Egan Bernal on Thursday and I think he's motivated to take pink. I was surprised myself and I feel stronger and stronger every day. That's good. Ineos look very solid but we are too, and it will be a nice duel. It will be special to fight against a team that's often won the Tour de France. I would never have imagined it."
Like Ineos, Deceuninck-QuickStep ostensibly set off from Turin with two options for the general classification, but there is already no doubt about their respective hierarchies. Pavel Sivakov crashed out of the race on stage 5, while Evenepoel's stablemate João Almeida, a sparkling fourth overall at this race last October, is already out of the picture after losing five minutes at Sestola.
On the climb to San Giacomo on Thursday, Almeida was redeployed as a rather elite sort of gregario, while Evenepoel was also able to rely on support from men like James Knox and Fausto Masnada. Ineos' show of force in splitting the bunch midway through the stage felt like a message, but Deceuninck-QuickStep responded. They were still present in numbers to shepherd Evenepoel to the upper reaches of the climb, where he then tracked the acceleration of Bernal.
"I think with our team, we can start to dream," Evenepoel said. "We all have one goal and it is to do the best GC place with me, if possible. If that's seventh, first or 20th, it will all be OK. If we end this Giro with good feelings and a great team performance, that's the best for us."
This Giro d'Italia is Evenepoel's first Grand Tour and his first race since he broke his pelvis in a crash at Il Lombardia last August. Despite a setback in his rehabilitation process and the subsequent delay to his season, he has arrived in Italy seemingly unaffected by the layoff. He was among the best of the GC men in the opening time trial, just 11 seconds off Bernal at Sestola, and he was able to match the Colombian and Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) at San Giacomo, taking fourth on the stage.
"I think everyone was surprised, even me," Evenepoel said of his performance on a stage run in the most miserable of conditions. "I was surprised myself because it was the first big test, and after such a brutal stage with the weather and everything, I didn't expect to perform that well in the final, because I don't really like the rain. But in the end, I had it in my mind that everyone was suffering."
In the here and now, Evenepoel is within touching distance of Valter's pink jersey. Saturday's uphill finale at Guardia Sanframondi might even provide the terrain for him to try to dislodge the Hungarian, but for his eagerness to chase bonus seconds early in the week was perhaps deceptive: the 21-year-old appears to be casting his mind further ahead.
"The [GC] ranking is very good, I don't think it could be better. The main goal is to arrive safely at the rest day and then from then on, I think the GC battle will completely explode," Evenepoel said.
And yet, and yet. Evenepoel is a young man in a hurry, and nothing, not even an eight-month layoff, has slowed the meteor's progress to date. On Sunday, the Giro takes in another summit finish at Campo Felice, where the gradient rears up to 14 per cent and asphalt gives way to gravel in the closing kilometres.
"It will be a second battle for the general classification," he said. "The Giro is still long, but there is a chance the pink jersey could change hands before the end of the week."
He didn't need to say where he thought it might end up.
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