Remco Evenepoel and his Deceuninck-QuickStep team remained upbeat after Sunday’s stage of the Giro d’Italia, where the Belgian lost minimal time on the final climb to stage winner and new race leader Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers).
Evenepoel played down what the Belgian squad called an "incident" in the long road tunnel shortly before the final climb, where he said that Bernal and one of his teammates had almost touched wheels in front of him, to their mutual disadvantage.
"We both lost positions [in the peloton] together," Evenepoel said afterwards, "but that’s racing and it happens."
When they emerged from the tunnel, Evenepoel was notably further back than expected as the 1.5-kilometre climb on the dirt road to Campo Felice started.
"Because of that I was quite badly positioned, and although I could move up as much as possible and I gained quite a few places, I just missed out on the bonus seconds," he said.
Fourth at the finish and 10 seconds down on Bernal, Evenepoel added: "I didn’t concede that much time, which is good ahead of next week. We can be proud of our work and of how the team rode today."
After dismissing the time losses as "almost nothing, as we know the big, big mountains are still coming,” he added: "I also kept my position on GC which is important for Wednesday."
Deceuninck-QuickStep management equally gave Evenepoel’s performance a resounding thumbs up, while admitting that stage winner Bernal had been "very strong". The Belgian team car will now be in second place in the race convoy for Wednesday's vital dirt road stage to Montalcino and so ready if Evenepoel needs help.
Evenepoel stays in second place in the Giro, but, for the first time since the opening time trial in Turin, Bernal is now ahead of the Belgian, having leapfrogged into the lead on Sunday.
Evenepoel had gained 20 seconds on Bernal in Turin, but since then the Colombian has been regaining ground on each climb, from dropping him as he did on Tuesday in Sestola, or taking a time bonus, as happened on Thursday. Then on Sunday, Bernal both gapped Evenepoel by 10 seconds and simultaneously, thanks to his first place, snatched a 10-second time bonus.
"Remco limited the damage and remains second behind a very strong Bernal. All in all it was a good day, yes," Deceuninck-QuickStep sports director Klaas Lodewyck insisted to Belgian agency Sporza, adding that Evenepoel had told him he felt good.
"You can’t deny that Bernal was riding well. But we’re focused on our own performance."
He added that the overall situation had its strategic advantages, as Ineos Grenadiers now have to control the race, given they are leading, while Deceuninck-QuickStep could save their energy for later in the Giro.
"I would say, let’s leave Remco to improve at his own speed, and then we’ll see what happens," Lodewyck said.
Looking ahead to Wednesday’s ride through similar off-road terrain in Tuscany, Lodewyck argued that the steadier, longer climbs would suit Evenepoel better.
This would seem to be backed up with Tuesday’s events, when Evenepoel shedded 11 seconds to Bernal on the steep, punchy climb of Colle Passerino, while he was able to stay with the Colombian on the more gradual gradient of the Colle San Giacamo on stage 6.
"Every day here we are fighting hard, we’ve got our knife between our teeth, but over the next couple of days" - one a flat stage and then the first rest day - "we have to try to recover for what’s coming up."
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