For those fans with a strong sense of déjà vu about all the fuss surrounding Remco Evenepoel and his participation in the final pre-race countdown before the 2022 Vuelta a España, the young Belgian star is at pains to prove them wrong on at least one count.
Compared to his Grand Tour debut in the Giro in 2021, the QuickStep-AlphaVinyl pro said on Thursday, his build-up for the Vuelta has virtually no similarities whatsoever.
Evenepoel started the 2021 Giro after a long layoff following a major crash and injury in Il Lombardia 2020, and as he put it on Thursday, “my preparation was completely different, just five weeks long and here I have been preparing for eight weeks.”
“Up to now I’ve had a great season, so it’s very different to last year, just positive things compared to before the Giro. For my head and my legs, this is a very different Remco.”
However, with betting stations reportedly naming Evenepoel as second only to three-time winner Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) as favourite to win the Vuelta outright, interest in how the Belgian will fare is logically rising as fast as it did last May in the Giro, if not faster.
“It’s not something that worries me,” Evenepoel said when asked about his top-level contender status among the bookies, “nor will we be thinking about that in the next three weeks.”
What QuickStep-AlphaVinyl will be thinking about, he argued, was his delivering as good a performance as possible, starting with a drive for victory in the team time trial on Friday, as well as stage wins for Julian Alaphilippe while he concentrates on the overall.
“A victory tomorrow [Friday] would be the best-case scenario, a dream start and a big pressure drop,” he said.
“The first week is a difficult one, we all know the north of Spain is a hard area to race in, but GC-wise it’s not only about the first 10 days. From Alicante [stage 10] onwards, it’ll be GC racing full-on.”
Given their lack of a sprinter, unlike in 2021 when QuickStep brought Fabio Jakobsen to the Vuelta, Evenepoel says the team will have limited options on flat stages but that there are still "15 other opportunities" for his team.
“I’ll focus on my goal for three weeks, but the more stages we can take the better. We can go for both, although we can only talk about the GC after stage 21.”
Evenepoel’s build-up for that overall bid has included a lot of work on longer climbs, too, he said, constructing what he called “a big, wide base with some intensity efforts in my last camp in Spain to get used to the heat.”
“But it was as relaxed a preparation as possible and we managed to achieve that. I’ve been riding for long spells on the climbs in Livigno and Alicante. So compared to Liege and the Basque Country where we are putting in efforts of 1, 2 or 3 minutes, these have been 15-20 minute efforts.”
Team order is clear
Yet even if Evenepoel has taken a different approach to the Vuelta this September compared to the Giro, media interest in how he will perform since a small army of Belgian journalists descended on the Italian Grand Tour in 2021 has done anything but diminish.
Coverage of the Vuelta in Holland has logically been boosted by the race start in Utrecht, but the Belgian media spotlight on Evenepoel and the Spanish Grand Tour is arguably far greater proportionally, right down to Flemish newspaper Het Nieuwsblad having an article-cum-competition on Friday asking if their readers can recognise all 10 winners of the Vuelta in the last 15 years in photographs, and its great rival Het Laatste Nieuws having a "live Vuelta updates" page. Furthermore, this year anecdotal evidence suggests there are more Belgian journalists in the Vuelta than in the last decade combined.
That interest will hardly drop should Evenepoel and his team win tomorrow’s opening TTT, beating local arch-favourites and Dutch squad Jumbo-Visma in the process and, of course, gaining time on Roglič. Evenepoel would not reveal who would be the first rider to cross the line and take the leader’s red jersey if QuickStep-AlphaVinyl win, only that it would not be Evenepoel himself. But he was more willing to resolve one of the questions asked as the headline to a Het Nieuwsblad article on Thursday - “Eight riders, 40,320 combinations and all sorts of pitfalls: who will be on the wheel of ‘fast train’ Evenepoel in the team time trial?”
“The guy behind me is sitting across the room from me now, my friend Mr. Alaphilippe,” Evenepoel said, to which Alaphilippe responded jokingly, “pray for me,” before adding, “my problem is there will be a lot of mosquitoes on my windshield, Remco is so aero’.”
Speaking more seriously, Evenepoel added “we will be well prepared and our order is clear. Julian is behind me, he is a strong time triallist and we have a strong lineup. Everybody knows what to do.”
Not everything is going perfectly in the QuickStep-AlphaVinyl Vuelta camp, though, as Sports Director Klaas Lodewyck had to head home early with COVID-19. And from Evenepoel’s point of view at least, there are also learning curves even for a squad as well established as Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl to follow, with the young Belgian using his press conference to call on his team to look at Roglič, and both Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers, as examples to follow in terms of Grand Tour strategies.
“It’s a compliment if Roglič or somebody of that calibre talks about our team,” Evenepoel affirmed. But if Evenepoel’s plans for the Vuelta come to fruition this September, it surely won’t be just the Slovenian discussing what would be a major step forward for the Belgian towards one of the key areas left for him to try to conquer: the Grand Tours.
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