The setback wasn’t only to his racing career; his reputation was also damaged, with statements in the Gazzetta dello Sport and by cycling legend Alberto Contador (“There are a thousand interpretations, but I want to think that he has Covid.”) questioning his courage and his honesty.
The first – and loudest – person to raise suspicions was Martin Hvastija, the director of the Slovenian national team and therefore an ally of Evenepoel’s Giro opponent Primož Roglič. “I don’t believe [the Covid story],” he told a Slovenian podcast. “I think it’s more that Remco is afraid to face the truth rather than that is a serious illness. I think that the main reason [he withdrew] is that he does not have the advantage of three minutes, as he predicted.”
Hvastija was just sounding off, of course, but it was surprising that few people came to the Belgian’s defence. One reason may have been because of his performance in the Giro. Before his narrow victory in the second time trial, he lost 14 seconds to Roglič, Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart (both Ineos Grenadiers) on the stage 8 climb of I Cappuccini. He might have been weakened by the illness already but that was not his excuse. Rather it was because of his white bike: “The white paint is quite heavy on a bike. We did some calculations in the team, and we saw that it cost me a few seconds. But it was my mistake because I wanted to ride the white bike.”
The aftermath of the Giro hit the 23-year-old Soudal–Quick-Step rider hard and he took to Instagram to air his grievances. “What is hard to accept is all the fake and negative comments I got after having to leave the race,” he wrote. “The last days were emotionally very hard because of these comments.”
So, his image is very important to him. How does he now make up for the Giro setback? The obvious answer is to ride in the Tour de France. But the course doesn’t really suit him, not yet. He does not appear to thrive on long, steep climbs. His 2022 Vuelta victory was achieved over kinder ascents. The Giro with its three time trials had been the perfect fit.
Evenepoel has decided that the Tour de Suisse is the ideal arena for his comeback. At first glance, he has chosen wisely. (It was his choice, Soudal–Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere declared, while complaining about the low remuneration the Swiss race pays its participants). There are several Category 1 climbs and only one ascent that is classified as Beyond Category (HC) but the finish line of that stage comes after a long descent during which he could make up any ground lost. And, most importantly, there are two time trials, with the longest one, 25 km, on the final stage. It looks like a race that is custom-made for Evenepoel. And then, on August 6 in and around Glasgow, there is the Road Race of the UCI Cycling World Championships, which he will be favoured to win again. And for good reasons because on his day, he is probably the best one-day rider in the world.
But he wants to be the best rider period. For that, he will have to beat Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard in the Tour de France. Can he beat them with his current team? Soudal–Quick-Step appears to have issues managing a three-week race, as was apparent in its handling of early breakaways in the Giro. Evenepoel’s Vuelta win was the team’s first Grand Tour victory in its 20 years of existence under various names. So, has Remco been flirting with another team, an experienced team looking for a serial Grand Tour winner, like Ineos Grenadiers? Lefevere clearly thinks so. “For almost a year, there have been rumours that there is or was contact between Remco Evenepoel and Ineos,” he complained. “I know that the then Team Sky had already spoken to Remco a few years ago. Last year, after the World Championships, there was probably contact again with father Evenepoel, who is Remco’s manager.”
He went on to say that he had told Evenepoel that these rumours had to cease. “Because that only causes people to be nervous,” he said, adding: “Ineos team boss Rod Ellingworth once sent me a message: ‘If you want to get rid of Remco one day, let me know.’ I sent him back [a message saying] that he would then have to take over the whole team.”
Evenepoel at Ineos seems like a match made in heaven. If it happens, we will finally learn just how good Remco Evenepoel is.