Wout van Aert may be leading Belgium's challenge at the World Championships, but Remco Evenepoel who has hit the headlines in the days before the race, with the rider dubbed 'the next Eddy Merckx' coming under fire from the man himself.
Merckx, who won three rainbow jerseys back in the 1970s, told Het Nieuwblad that the 21-year-old shouldn't be in the Belgian team for the road race, calling him a selfish rider.
"If there is only one leader, you really shouldn't take Evenepoel," was Merckx's verdict on the make-up of Belgium's eight-man squad. "He rides mainly for himself; we saw that at the Olympics."
Evenepoel was selected on the premise he would accept a super-domestique role on Sunday, with Van Aert the outright leader and one of the top favourites to win the rainbow jersey.
He has promised to accept that role and was not afraid to respond to Merckx’s criticism during the Belgian team’s press conference.
"He always has to say something and that's a shame," Evenepoel said of the cycling greatest rider of all time.
"Maybe it stings that I didn't ride for his son's team [Hagens Berman Axeon].I have a lot of respect for Eddy and apparently that is not mutual. I look up to him and admire him for his record and his achievements.
"I'm not at the start in order to screw over the team. That never entered my mind – I'm just going to do my best."
Evenepoel reiterated that the plan is to ride for Van Aert, adding that – beyond the roles of the time trial silver medallist and indefatigable workhorse Tim Declercq – little is set for the rest of the squad, made up of Evenepoel, Yves Lampaert, Jasper Stuyven, Victor Campenaerts, Tiesj Benoot, and Dylan Teuns.
"We have one plan," he said. "You never know if something changes along the way, but that's not the idea we have at the start.
"As for the plan, we don't know anything other than we have a sole leader. Apart from Tim Declercq, nobody knows his real role. The ideal scenario is that we go to Leuven with a small group and one or two guys who can counter moves. However, it's still a 270-kilometre race with hills and wind.
"I'm here to work for Belgium, for Wout, because I know that it's the chance of his life to be world champion. He's in the form of his life, and it would be stupid of me to ride for myself. On this parcours, no one is stronger than Wout. I said already a lot of times that I will do everything Wout."
He said that his personal plan is to ride his own race, of sorts, at the beginning, but that he's aiming to be alongside Van Aert and ready to help in the final of the 268.3-kilometre marathon
"In the first part of the race, I will have to do sort of my own race, just to survive, then to be there in the final when Wout will need me," he said. "I'll stay near him the whole day but when I have to be there I will be there for him, to bring him to the finish line or help him out of trouble. That'll be my job.
"I think everyone should be ready for a plan B. We all know plan A is the dream plan but you never know. We also had a plan A in Lombardia for example, and I crashed out, so there is always a possibility to change from plan A to plan B but me and other guys will be ready."
Evenepoel, who has taken medals at his last three races – bronze in the European Championships time trial, silver in the road race, and then bronze in Sunday's time trial in Brugge – said that he was happy with his performance in the latter and that he feels in good condition three days ahead of the main event.
"At this moment I feel quite okay," he said. "I did some good training the last couple of days. I'm really happy with my performance in the time trial, then I did a good long recon of the two laps.
"Yesterday it was no training, just off the bike, and today (Thursday) with guys we did a recon. I'm really happy with the feeling and the freshness. I feel excited to ride this weekend."
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Daniel Ostanek has been a staff writer at Cyclingnews since August 2019, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later part-time production editor. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content on Cyclingnews and takes on live race text coverage throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Tro-Bro Léon, Strade Bianche, and the Vuelta a España.
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