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In the footsteps of Eddy Merckx at the Vuelta

The only 22-year-old Belgian defied the three-time winner Primoz Roglic on the Tour of Spain. After a fall, his fighting qualities are particularly in demand.

Remco Evenepoel reached the Sierra Nevada on Sunday 15 seconds behind his closest pursuer Primoz Roglic – that puts a smile on his face.

Tim De Waele/Getty

Even small joys can have a big impact. The smile of Vuelta leader Remco Evenepoel on Sunday at 2500 meters in the Sierra Nevada was only small. He hadn’t won stage 15 and his closest rival, Primoz Roglic, was another 15 seconds closer.

Still, it felt like a small win for Evenepoel. He said: “It went a lot better for me than on Saturday. My muscles are still a bit stiff, but I felt the effects of my fall much less. And I’m happy to have defended the leader’s jersey and to get into the last week with a head start.”

For the first time in the leader’s jersey of a Grand Tour

Evenepoel now finds satisfaction in small things. This is in stark contrast to his usual demeanor. He had started this Vuelta like a whirlwind. Well, the opening credits in the Netherlands were dominated by Roglic and his team Jumbo-Visma thanks to their victory in the team time trial. But as soon as the first steep ramps in the Basque country came into sight, the Belgian dictated what was happening.

In the 6th stage he was initially the locomotive in the field of favorites for a long time. Then he increased the pressure on the pedal – and Roglic and Co. had to let it tear off. The Slovenian lost more than a minute. Evenepoel, on the other hand, was able to slip on the leader’s jersey of a Grand Tour for the first time.

Evenepoel’s Hussar Ride in Stage 6 of the Vuelta.

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“This is the best race I’ve ever driven,” he said after his par force performance on Pico Jano. And that just a few months after he had delivered what he considered to be the “best race” of his career. At that time it was the Classique Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which he had won in the best Remco style: with a solo ride.

At the Vuelta, he followed the same pattern with further bravura performances. In stage 9 he took 52 seconds off Roglic. And in the time trial a day later, he distanced the Olympic champion in this discipline by 48 seconds. “Phew, that’s huge,” said Evenepoel when he found out about the lead over Roglic.

The solo ride is Evenepoel’s trademark

Solo rides, whether from the time trial ramp or out of the peloton, are the trademark of Remco Evenepoel. That’s how he started winning races when he was young, soon after he gave up football and got on his bike. As a lone fighter, he also achieved his first major victory in 2019, the Basque Classique San Sebastian. He was 19 years young at the time – and the sayings that he was the new Eddy Merckx picked up speed.

At first, Evenepoel was flattered. Later he noticed the shackles inherent in such a comparison and wished to get rid of them. “I’m not the new Eddy Merckx, I’m Remco Evenepoel,” he clarified. He involuntarily dropped out of all Merckx comparisons last year. At the Giro d’Italia 2021, his first Grand Tour, he was flat after ten days, seemed anxious on the descents and overwhelmed on gravel roads.

However, Evenepoel also came directly from rehabilitation after his terrible fall on the Lombardy Tour in August 2020. He had to sit out for eight months, he only drove flat laps on the virtual Zwift platform again at professional level.

Evenepoel falls heavily on the 2020 Tour of Lombardy.

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Evenepoel changed the training, after the rebuild he seemed more explosive. He says: “I have the muscles for it.” In himself he observed less selfishness, he was more interested in the well-being of others. His team boss Patrick Lefevere therefore also described the returnee as “Remco Evenepoel 2.0”. “Physically and above all mentally, he has become a completely different racer,” said Lefevere.

Starved – now Evenepoel weighs 63 to 64 kilos

Evenepoel drew the right conclusions from the mistakes made at the Giro. He invested training time in smarter descents. And he refrained from extreme starvation. “We are no longer aiming for the weight he had at the Giro,” his coach Koen Pelgrim alluded to the 60.5 kilos. Now Evenepoel’s weight is between 63 and 64 kilos, which makes him one to two kilos heavier than Roglic. At 1.77 meters, however, he is six centimeters taller than the Belgian.

Evenepoel looks compact, you can’t compare it to the emaciated mountain fleas flying up the ramps. The fact that it still gets up the mountains well is due to the enormous wattage that it pedals. According to team boss Lefevere, he can achieve 6.5 watts per kilogram of body weight. That’s in areas where Tadej Pogacar advanced in Tour de France victories.

Evenepoel was already ahead on Classiques, such as in San Sebastian in 2019. He was also ahead of Pogacar in the time trial. In mountain stages, however, the Slovenian, who is almost two years his senior, has been ahead by a nose.

Evenepoel has been in touch with the other Slovenian, Roglic, who is ten years his senior. At this year’s Vuelta, Roglic only regained the upper hand after Evenepoel misjudged a corner and fell; The Belgian lost 48 seconds in the 14th stage. The fact that he lost another 15 seconds on the climb to the Sierra Nevada the next day is not just a sign that he is feeling better again. It also shows his fighting qualities.

That’s why he’s wearing the leader’s jersey at this Vuelta. And his mental toughness will continue to make him a contender for the podium at the grand tours in the future.

In the third and last week of the Vuelta, Evenepoel wants to deliver a new masterpiece. He wants to switch from the young star’s aggressive urge to attack to defensive. “I have the lead, so I can stay calm. The others have to catch up,” he said.

That would be the next step in the development process of a circuit driver: finding the right mode for each phase of a race. Evenepoel is well advanced for a 22-year-old, possibly already too far for three-time Vuelta winner Roglic, 1:34 behind. But he announced a fight up to the last kilometer. The Vuelta remains exciting.

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