For young Belgian rider Ilan Van Wilder, compatriot Remco Evenepoel has many roles to play: WorldTour colleague, near-neighbour, occasional training partner and inspiration for time trialling progress. Now the two are also racing together as teammates at QuickStep-AlphaVinyl.
“I don’t have a role model, I follow my own path,” the 21-year-old told Cyclingnews at the team’s recent pre-season camp in Spain. “But if you look at how Remco raced as a Junior, he was a great TT-ist back then, and I was a strong TT-ist - even though Remco was too strong for everyone else!
“Then in some time trials I finished at less than a minute down on Remco, and that wasn't bad, either. And I was once second in the Junior Europeans TT behind Remco, too. So now, seeing what a great TT-ist he’s become at professional level, that’s a bit of an inspiration for me.”
Quite apart from training together at the QuickStep camp this January, as their Belgian residences are only about 25 kilometres apart, from time to time Van Wilder also crosses paths with Evenepoel when out on their bikes back home.
“We don’t go out training together that often as we’re nearly always travelling in other countries,” Van Wilder said, before adding with a chuckle, “we do that enough here in Spain.”
Van Wilder’s arrival at QuickStep-AlphaVinyl in 2022 was preceded by an initially tumultuous exit from Team DSM, after a team coach accused the 21-year-old of lacking in the "co-operation factor” last. As a result, Van Wilder did not get his promised spot in the DSM Vuelta a España lineup last summer. Even though a possible legal battle to resolve his bid to break his contract with DSM eventually morphed into an amicable agreement between the two teams for him to leave, the dispute gained its fair share of column inches in the local media.
“From the moment everything was fixed, I focused on the new beginning and I’m totally ready to start a new chapter, “ Van Wilder told Cyclingnews.
“Honestly I’m very happy, I feel at home, as a Belgian guy it’s a lot easier for me here. and there are a lot of Flemish teammates. But it’s not only about the Belgians here either, also the Italians and French guys and everybody else – everyone is really friendly and warm and that’s really what I need. A nice environment. The feeling that you’re welcome.”
When it comes to 2022 season goals, after last year’s non-selection for the Vuelta and the withdrawal from the same race on stage one with knee injuries in 2020, a Grand Tour start was definitely on Van Wilder’s mind.
But after the rollercoaster 2021 season, despite it including impressive top five places in time trials in the Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné – spending some time in the young rider leader’s jersey as well – Van Wilder was keeping his feet on the ground as best he could about his 2022 objectives.
“For me a time trial is a time trial, it doesn’t matter where it is, a stage race or a Grand Tour. I just want to do well, not just in the result, but also in the way I do the time trial and have a great feeling about that. Last year I did the top five in a couple of WorldTour races, so with the right material and so on it would be nice to do a podium in one of those," he said.
Even in early January when he talked to Cyclingnews, Van Wilder had already been testing the new QuickStep-AlphaVinyl equipment at the Valencia velodrome close to where he and the team were training. He certainly liked what he saw.
“We tried out some new positions, I also had a bike fit and did some metabolic testing," Van Wilder said. "So we invested some time and energy in it. Honestly the equipment is a big improvement. So I guess only with the material I will gain a lot of time. The bike itself is crazy fast. Everything is the best, now it's just the legs that have to be committed.”
After two years in the WorldTour, in any case, Van Wilder knows that while QuickStep represents a new chapter in his career, he’s already got a lot of useful experience under his belt.
Take the 2021 Belgian National Championships for example, where in the time trial he finished fourth behind new teammates Yves Lampaert and Evenepoel as well as Victor Campanaerts (Lotto-Soudal) and a frustrating, but ultimately beneficial, lesson was learned.
“It was an hour-long course and I made a mistake of starting too slow. So actually I ended up with too much left in the tank,” he recounted. “I did the fastest lap in the second half, faster than Lampaert and Remco so that was my mistake. I didn’t have the experience. I underestimated myself. But now I know I can start a TT full gas and hold it all the way.”
As for 2022, Van Wilder will start racing in time trials that are perhaps not completely up his alley. However, even without setting the bar too high, he’s determined to have a go in those ITTs too.
“I will start in Provence (February 10), then do the UAE Tour,” he said. “But the Provence TT is just a prologue and that’s not really my favourite thing, also it’s my very first race, so I have no great expectations.
“The UAE TT is longer, and totally flat so that’s not for me, either, I prefer the hilly ones where I can combine my power and low weight to best effect.”
And further into the season?
“I haven’t looked at the Worlds TT course. Maybe later we’ll talk with the coach of the team, we’ll see. For now I just want to find my own level.”
En route to a possible ride in Australia there is talk of a start in the Giro d’Italia, where once again Van Wilder would be following Evenepoel’s wheel tracks. But even if Van Wilder underestimated his own strength last year at times, this year if his rivals do the same it may be at their peril.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.