With this cycling prowess and these cumulative wins to their names, it’s hard to believe it’s been 44 years since a Belgian won a Grand Tour. In 2022, the drought was broken by 22-year-old Belgian Remco Evenepeol when he claimed victory at the Vuelta a España.
Belgian Grand Tour Forefathers
The last Belgian to win a Grand Tour before Remco was Johan De Muynck in the 1978 Giro d’Italia. That’s a massive gap of 44 years, something difficult to fathom from this cycling fan’s point of view. And as a non-Belgian, I can only imagine the enormity of Remo’s Vuelta win in the eyes of his fellow patriots.
The last Belgian to triumph at the Vuelta was Freddy Maertens in 1977. He did it in impressive style, winning 13 stages, including the first and last. And the last fellow countryman to win the Tour de France was Lucien Impe in 1976.
The most distinguished Belgian cyclist, and arguably the greatest of all time, is Eddy Merckx. He has 11 Grand Tours, three World Championships, an hour record, five Monuments and 525 total victories over his 18-year career as a pro. Between 1970 and 1974, he even accomplished a Grand Tour double, meaning he won two Grand Tours in one year. He has only one Vuelta victory, in 1973.
If you’ve been stranded on a desert island, Evenepoel’s Tour of Spain triumph may have gone unnoticed. But a mere three weeks later, young Remco achieved another impressive feat with a 34-km solo breakaway, becoming the 2022 UCI World Road Champion in Wollongong, Australia.
Remco’s precocious skill as a cyclist, remember he’s only 22, made him a budding star at home. Ending the 44-year Grand Tour drought and donning the Rainbow Bands in Australia transformed him into the pride of every Belgian citizen and a household name. And he received a hero’s welcome. Impressive crowds flooded the Grote Markt (Grand-Place) in Brussels to catch a glimpse of King Remco and celebrate a moment of Flemish cycling history.
Despite his age, Remco has been racing professionally since the age of 18 for the Belgian team Deceuninck-Quick Step. His Vuelta and World Championship achievements were part of a dream season that included a Monument (Liège-Bastogne-Liège) and 15 wins from 67 days of racing. Impressive stuff. If he continues in this fashion, he’s on target to meet or exceed Merckx in total victories.
Yet Remco’s path as a pro hasn’t been without criticism or problems. At 20, he suffered a massive crash in the 2020 Il Lombardia, going over the edge of a narrow bridge and into the ravine below. The result was a potentially career-ending fractured pelvis, and a bruised lung. He lost an entire year of racing, recovering and getting back into the fold.
Prior to the Worlds, Remco received negative comments about how he handles himself in races. Some say he is criticised only because the Belgian media and fans are desperate for him to become the next “Cannibal”. Others praise him for his willingness to work for others. In either case, I can’t imagine the pressure he feels.
Future Grand Tours
To silence critics and appease the expectation of Belgian fans, Remco needs to add victory in the Tour de France to his list of results. He’s shown he can climb and time trial. But winning the Grand Boucle is never an easy feat, and he’ll need to have a team built up around him to achieve it.
His attendance at the 2023 Tour seems unrealistic based on Quick Step Alpha Vinyl’s current team roster. 2024 is a different matter. Strategic trades could reinforce the squad toward the Tour goal. But is it on their radar? Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl has traditionally gone for one-day victories and Grand Tour stages as opposed to general classifications. Remco could change that. And a win in France would bring an influx of valuable sponsorships to secure the team for years to come.
Can Remco stay the course and handle the additional pressure that comes with global fame? Time will tell. If he wins the Tour in 2024 or beyond, he will break an even longer record of 48 years or more since a Belgian wore yellow in Paris. There are many contenders along the way, which simply means more excellent racing for hungry spectators to enjoy.