Belgium's Remco Evenepoel won the junior men's time trial at the UCI Road World Championships by over a minute and will turn professional with Quick-Step Floors in 2019 without racing in the under-23 ranks. He has won 34 of the 44 races he has competed in over the past 18 months, a feat that has captured enormous attention in Belgium. Although the comparison is easy, Evenepoel does not want to be called Belgium's next Eddy Merckx.
Evenepoel only turned to cycling in 2017 after spending much of his youth playing football for the Anderlecht, PSV Endhoven and Belgian youth teams. His father was a professional cyclist in the early 1990s with the Collstrop team, and that experience helped his prodigious young son become the provincial, then national, then European and now the world champion.
Evenepoel often wins by attacking alone and using his time trial skills to power to the finish. His dominance in the world championship was 'Cannibal-esque' but he gently pushed back against comparisons with Eddy Merckx.
"Being described as the new Merckx is not something I want to hear. Everything is different now and every rider is different, so I don't want to be called the new Merckx. I'm the new me," Evenepoel said firmly but with respect, admitting he had met Eddy Merckx when he talked to Axel Merckx about riding for the Hagens Berman Axeon team.
His rapid development also caught the eye of Quick-Step Floors and Team Sky, but Evenepoel signed with the Belgian team during a visit to the Tour de France.
Double under-23 time trial world champion Mikkel Bjerg opted to develop gradually with Hagens Berman Axeon, but Evenepoel is keen to make the big step up to WorldTour level directly from the junior ranks.
"When I stopped playing soccer I knew I wanted to do cycling. I think it was the right choice," he said, appearing mentally and physically beyond his years.
"It was really difficult at first and I had lots of muscle problems because the two sports are so different, but I'm happy to be a cyclist. It's beautiful when you win. After Friday's road race I'll be a professional, but that's cool. I'm happy to make my hobby my job. Cycling will still be my hobby, it'll only be a little more serious.
"I know stepping up from junior level to the pros is a big step, so I won't race a lot, maybe just some short races and stage races like Colombia Oro y Paz, where the stage distances are shorter. I'll also do a lot of training at altitude and for the time trial to help me develop for the Grand Tours. They're the eventual big goals of my career."
Evenepoel celebrated his world title victory even before he crossed the finish line - such was his winning margin on Australia's Lucas Plapp. He shed some tears on the podium, later dedicating his win to Igor De Craene, who was the junior world time trial champion in Florence in 2013 but lost his life a few months later when he was hit by a train late at night.
Expectations are high for Evenepoel, just as they were for De Craene and before that Frank Vandenbroucke, who also turned professional at just 19. Evenepoel seems naturally confident and balanced, able to shrug even the expectations of cycling-mad Belgium.
"People said it'd be easy for me to win the World Championships, but I know I have to work hard for every race and every win. I also know that a simple puncture can mean my race would be over, so I made sure I pushed the pressure aside and focused on my job," he explained.
"I've worked hard to be at my very best this week, so it's nice its worked out. But I'm not obsessed about success or cycling. I'm happy and I have joy in my life. I don't live like a pro or a crazy guy. I eat fries and chocolate; I enjoy life. I worked hard for a month but that's because I wanted this win."
Evenepoel has often attacked and soloed away from his rivals to win road races. His rivals now know his ability and his tactics, but he is confident of adding a second world title to his youthful palmares, just as he won both the time trial and the road race titles at the European Championships.
"It's a totally different course because there's 60km of flat roads early on, but after that it's constant climbing and descending. The strongest will win," Evenepoel concluded.
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