Remco Evenepoel's already difficult second half of the Giro d'Italia went into a serious nosedive on Monday as the young Belgian star lost over 24 minutes on race leader and stage winner Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers).
Expectations as to what the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider could achieve, in what is both his first race in nine months and his first-ever Grand Tour at 21, have always been sky high in his native Belgium, particularly given his spectacular series of successes prior to his crash in Il Lombardia last autumn.
But Evenepoel had warned reporters on the Giro's first rest day when he was lying second overall, that while "amazed and surprised" at what he had managed to do so far, given racing this Giro represented a voyage in the dark, he could not predict how the second part would play out. "Maybe in this press conference next week, I'll be tenth," he predicted.
As things turned out, as the Giro reaches its second rest day on Tuesday, Evenepoel has fared much worse than that. He slumped from seventh to 19th overall on Monday's brutally-difficult stage when he cracked and slid out of the GC group, even before they had reached the final big climb of stage 16 on the Passo Giau.
Evenepoel had said that he expected the steadier pace demanded by the climbs of the Dolomites would suit him better than the ultra-steep ramps of the Zoncolan in the Carnic Alps on Saturday, where he also lost over two minutes. But in fact, the reverse proved to be true.
Although the massive time loss over the Giau has fuelled speculation amongst the Belgian media that Evenepoel could quit the Giro, for now, the 21-year-old has said that he has no intention of leaving the race.
"We knew this could happen. I had a total off-day. It's nothing to be ashamed of," Evenepoel insisted after he had showered and changed, and then emerged from the team bus to face the media.
"Someone who has only trained for two months," the time since he recovered fully from his crash, "cannot expect to be in top condition for a three-week stage [race]."
Echoing his own comments after he lost two and a half minutes to Bernal on the Zoncolan, Evenepoel said, "I feel the power is getting less and less. The consequences of what I have to do on every stage is building up and up. It's all part of the learning process, though, and I'm taking that lesson into next year."
The Belgian star insisted that he would continue in the Giro d'Italia until the finish in Milan and that he would now "gladly" work for Deceuninck-QuickStep's newly best-placed rider, last year's longstanding Giro leader João Almeida, who finished an impressive sixth on the Giau stage and was now 10th overall.
As for whether he might fight for stage wins, such as the final time trial in Milan, the Belgian said it would be wiser to wait until he saw how he felt after the third week rest day.
"I am half an hour down, so I have some margin [to get in breakaways], but I have to wait to see how I feel first. If I am tired at the start of a stage, it makes no sense," he reasoned.
Evenepoel said one major goal would be not to push himself too hard in the coming days because he did not want to finish the Giro completely empty.
But he repeatedly insisted that his current situation was not one that he could describe as unexpected. Or as he put it, "We knew that the Giro could go in many different directions, both for me and for João."
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