No rider has recently caused more controversy in professional cycling than Remco Evenepoel. You're either on the hype train praising the Lord for sending his latest son. Or you're downplaying the achievements of the arrogant football player without bike handling skills. Whether Remco can win a Grand Tour has become THE million-dollar question and divides the world of cycling. Do you believe? I do.
In every man, there's a child; they say. That's precisely what I felt counting down the days until the next race of Remco Evenepoel. Like a kid would when Christmas is approaching. With the junior road race and the time trial World Championship under his belt, Remco Evenepoel already set high expectations before entering the elite category (skipping the U23). But what he performed at the age of 19 and how he did was pretty much unseen in modern cycling. After winning the Clasica San Sebastian and taking the silver at the World Championship time trial, expectations went through the roof. This extraterrestrial will dominate the Tour de France for years!
Can you imagine Erling Haland practicing free kicks on an abandoned football pitch near your place at 8:30 in the morning?
The exciting thing was that, in his 2nd year as a pro, Evenepoel continued to deliver on the goals set to grow towards being a GT candidate. I enjoyed following this journey of discovery; almost as if I were part of it. So yes I became a fan because of his race attitude, talent, achievements, and progress. But I admit there's also a certain bias because of personal reasons.
First of all, on several occasions, I drove past Remco training when I was on my way to work. As insignificant as it might seem, I find it so unreal to just see one of the best riders in the world doing his job on the very same roads I'm using. Can you imagine Erling Haland practicing free kicks on an abandoned football pitch near your place at 8:30 in the morning?
A second reason is the name of "Evenepoel" which he shares with my grandmother. Moreover, like Remco, her roots lie in the Pajottenland, the rural region southwest of Brussels. So there might be a chance we're sharing a smidgen of DNA! I better start building my family tree as quickly as possible. If height is a leading factor in proving a genetic relationship, then there should be no doubt! ;-)
No world-class rider like Mikel Landa or Richard Carapaz is fond of being ridiculed by a 20-year-old kid
But we're getting sidetracked. None of these are arguments why I believe he can win a Grand Tour. Let's go back to 2020 when he dominantly won the Vuelta a Burgos (including Picon Blanco; 8,5km @ 8,9%) and simply crushed the competition in the Tour of Poland. Neither of these stage races included a time trial allowing him to gain time and ride defensively. So he did win these in the hills and mountains. Granted, the mountain stages are hardly comparable to an average Tour de France mountain stage, but still, he managed to put time into GT regulars like Mikel Landa (3rd Giro d'Italia & 4th Tour de France), Simon Yates (winner of the Vuelta a España & 3rd Giro d'Italia), Richard Carapaz (winner Giro d'Italia & 3rd Tour de France), Jakob Fuglsang (winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Lombardy).
The argument that these riders were not focussing on these races while Remco was, is nonsense. First of all Remco's target was the Tour of Lombardy, so these races were also preparation races for him. Moreover, due to Covid-19, the Tour de France started 2 weeks after Lombardy which meant that Landa and Carapaz were working towards their peak in, more or less, the same period. And finally, these are professionals. None of these world-class riders are fond of being ridiculed by a 20-year-old kid. I've yet to find a pro rider who is so kind as to "let" his competitor win.
In hindsight, the crash at Lombardy did set Evenepoel back in his development more than expected. Directly, because of the recovery time of course, but also indirectly. We know now that coming back in the peloton at the 2021 Giro d'Italia, was a terrible plan. Evenepoel basically combined the final stage of his recovery (at that moment nobody really knew when he would be his old self again) with altitude camps in a rush to make it to the Grande Partenza.
A skinny Remco entered the race with a reported weight of 60kg, the lowest since he had been competing in cycling. He managed to keep up appearances but eventually, the extreme stress on his body made him run out of reserves which he never really properly re-built after the crash.
The Slovenian extraterrestrial had pushed the Belgian one into a black hole.
The DNF at the Giro, the descending issues he suddenly seemed to have developed in that Giro, and the disappointment of the Olympics were enough for a vast amount of cycling fans to proclaim the 21-year-old Evenepoel would never be GT material. It didn't help either that a certain Tadaj Pogacar convincingly won the Tour de France at the age of 23, and became the new benchmark for young aspiring riders. The new extraterrestrial had pushed the previous one into a black hole. Mentally it must have been hell for Evenepoel; from hero to zero.
The decision to complete the 2nd half of the 2021 season without any specific goals in order to try to get back his old mojo in smaller races was the turning point for the young Belgian. We again saw Evepoel winning races in his trademark style: chocking the competition with a relentless high pace and soloing to the finish. The cycling followers who had already buried Remco as a GT rider now resorted to downplaying these victories because these were no classics and the field was weak. And as a matter of fact, I agree!
But even in these "minor" races, I can't think of any rider in modern cycling who made lapping the peloton and winning races with +30km solos (Druivenkoers Overijse: 60km!) look like an easy habit. Moreover, at the European Championship, it took the best Sonny Colbrelli ever (winner of Paris-Roubaix 3 weeks later) to hang onto a furiously pounding Remco by the skin of his teeth, or the kid would have taken the title putting 1'30" into "pancakes" (as we say in Flanders) like Tadej Pogacar, Benoit Cosnefroy, Matteo Trentin and Marc Hirschi.
But the main lesson was that the engine was again firing on all cylinders without permanent damage from the crash a year earlier. The off-day at the Tour of Lombardy again raised the hope of the naysayers. But just to put things in context: Evenpoel had been racing like a raging bull for 2 months prior to Lombardy, without any plan or specific (climbing) training. So perhaps it is not that far-fetched to understand that the Monument of Il Lombardia (260km with the most vertical meters), does require a different, more meticulous approach.
The conclusion of 2021 is that we don't have any reference as to whether Evenpoel is proper GT material. But neither do we have any proof he is not; and as long as this is the case I'm a believer.
I already mentioned the indirect impact of the crash (and certain choices in 2021) should not be underestimated, and reality shows the upcoming Vuelta a España will only be the first true test in more than 2 years since that dreadful day (consider the Tour de Suisse an appetizer). 2022 hasn't learnt us much more so far. During winter Evenepoel had clearly focussed a lot on explosivity, which he lacked a lot, and underwent a physical transformation displaying bulkier thighs and upper body.
Although he immediately won his first race of the season, long and steep climbs killed him at the Tour of Valencia and Tirreno-Adriatico which, once again, confirmed his limitations on high gradient climbs (although he did crest the summit of the Muro di Sormano, 2km at 14%, in that disastrous 2020 Tour of Lombardy among the 5 leaders without any problem).
Little did we know that he started the season with a weight of 66kg (!) and without specific climbing training as the first target were the hills of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The surprising progress he showed at Tour of the Basque Country (without a doubt the hardest one-week stage race on the calendar with an endless number of crazy steep climbs) proves he does have the engine and indicates as well that the search for the right weight will be the main factor is chasing GT success.
As talented as Evenepoel is, he's won't escape the rules of physics.
Take a look at the different Remco versions:
Best climbing Remco ever (Burgos 2020)
Skinny exhausted Remco (Giro 2021)
Remco The Hulk (Liège 2022)
Evenepoel has the watts and the endurance as he showed at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but having reduced his weight to 64kg (as he said after LBL) for sure contributed greatly to being competitive for the win at the Basque Country and Liège. As talented as Evenepoel is, he's won't escape the rules of physics. Finding the optimal power-to-weight ratio is of primordial importance for any GT rider.
The good thing about Remco is that he still has a decent margin in terms of weight. 62kg must be feasible (he already mentioned this himself) and IMO it would have already allowed him to win the Basque Country. Will it impact his TT skills? That would be logical, especially in flat time trials. But it's not going to prevent him from choking his opponents with a high pace on a hilly course, this ability is embedded into Remo's DNA. Moreover, over the last decade, Grand Tours have consistently reduced the total amount of TT kilometers in favor of steeper climbs. So from that perspective, it makes perfect sense to sacrifice a bit of his TT skills, although he will continue to put time in his main GT rivals in any time trial.
It's still 3 months to the Vuelta but I'm curious how lean he's already going to be at the Tour de Suisse in mid-June. He did express his concerns about becoming too skinny referring to the 60kg at the 2021 Giro d'Italia where he experienced a hormonal imbalance negatively impacting his performance. I don't have a master in sports physiology, but I assume there's a big difference between a healthy rider gradually reducing weight under medical supervision and the recovering patient with an exhausted body Evenepoel was last year.
Remco Evenepoel is not a stock pick.
But it's not going to be until the end of the Vuelta before he and the team will know what and how they can tweak further pursuing the Grand Tour I believe Remco has in him.
I don't need to be right, there's no personal gain in it for me. Remco is not a stock pick.
But sometimes the market has an irrational negative sentiment towards a stock and it gets largely undervalued even though the fundamentals are great. In my opinion, there's no doubt Remco Evenepoel (stock ticker REV1703) is a future Grand Tour multi-bagger.
I'm a believer, are you? Please leave a comment below!
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