“I still have some steps to take before I can challenge [Tadej] Pogačar, [Egan] Bernal and [Primož] Roglič, and above all be able to beat them,” he told the Belgian daily La Dernière Heure. “I hope it will be the case as of next season.”
Not that the Deceuninck–Quick-Step rider had a bad 2021. His CV for the year includes victories in the Baloise Belgium Tour, the Tour of Denmark, the Brussels Cycling Classic and the Coppa Bernocchi, second place in the UEC European Road Championships Road Race and third in the Individual Time Trial (ITT) and a third place in the World Championships ITT.
What makes these results even more impressive was that Evenepoel had suffered a fractured pelvis at Il Lombardia in August 2020, which led to him being off the bike for eight months. He returned to road racing at the Giro D’Italia, where he put in a solid performance, standing second in the GC before dropping out of contention in the mountains and abandoning after stage 17. That was his first taste of grand tour racing and remains his only experience so far of road racing’s greatest challenge.
Still, the past year was not without disappointments and well-publicised crises for Evenepoel, such as the run-up to the World Championships and the race itself.
Evenepoel has been a star in the making since his performances as a 19-year-old, when he won the junior men’s time trial at the World Championships by over a minute and won 34 of the 44 races he competed in over a period of 18 months. This led some cycling aficionados to call him ‘the next Eddy Merckx’. So, it came as a shock when the man himself slammed what he considered Evenepoel’s lack of team spirit and suggested he shouldn’t have been selected for the Belgian team for the 2021 Worlds.
“If there is only one leader, you really shouldn’t take Evenepoel,” Merckx said at the time. “He rides mainly for himself; we saw that at the Olympics.”
Evenepoel was quick to respond, telling journalists at the Worlds: “[Merckx] always has to say something and that’s a shame. I have a lot of respect for Eddy and apparently that is not mutual.”
Evenepoel ended up following team instructions to the letter in the road race, chasing down escapes and working for team leader Wout van Aert. But it was in vain, as van Aert tired at the end, finishing 11th, while Evenepoel came in 49th. After the race, Evenepoel let it be known that he had the legs to beat winner Julian Alaphilippe if he’d been allowed to ride his race.
And what’s more, Merckx agreed, sort of, telling Het Laatste Nieuws that the Belgians’ great error at the Worlds was in team selection.
Beyond grateful to be at the start and finish @ilombardia 2021. Case closed.
What an impressive ride of @fausto_masnada ! #incredibile #TheWolfpack
Photo: @GettySport pic.twitter.com/9ms9aIgTDg
— Remco Evenepoel (@EvenepoelRemco) October 9, 2021
“The biggest mistake was Remco,” he said. “If you take him, it can’t be as a domestique.” Which is what he’d intended to convey by his original criticism, Merckx said, adding: “I’m a big fan of Remco – let that be clear.”
With that controversy now all settled, Evenepoel can continue his assault on road racing’s elite with a clear conscience. And that is his plan.
“I returned to the level of the best, to an excellent level [after the crash at Il Lombardia], but not yet what we wanted and hoped for with the team,” he said. “We know that I have the possibility to be doing better but we still need a little patience. The time will come, for sure. You need to have the legs, know how to choose the moment and spend a winter without problems.”
In any case, he has time to develop. Have I already mentioned that he is only 21?