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Road to the Tour: Evenepoel’s Illness One More Setback for ‘Hexed’ Tour

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Is this year’s Tour de France hexed? It isn’t, of course, but sometimes you have to wonder why so many bad things have affected what at the beginning of the year seemed likely to be the mother of all Tours. For in what other Tour have four superstars of the abilities of Tadej Pogačar (2x Tour winner, Giro d’Italia winner), Jonas Vingegaard (also 2x Tour winner), Remco Evenepoel (Vuelta winner, former world champion) and Primož Roglič (3x Vuelta winner, Giro winner) ridden against each other?

And the route of this Tour is also special, with daunting mountain stages and a closing stage that will not be a victory parade, but a difficult time trial in and around Nice. Cycling fans around the world were drooling in anticipation of a spectacular sporting event.

But crashes injured three of the protagonists, with only Pogačar, this year’s Giro winner, spared. The form of the other three riders remain questionable as the June 29 Grand Départ approaches. And now news of another setback for one of the stars, with Evenepoel (Soudal–Quick Step) having to cancel his appearance at Sunday’s Belgian National Championship due to illness.

In a statement released on its website, the team said, “Unfortunately, the 24-year-old will not be able to defend his road race title at the Belgian National Championships, due to him having a cold. While it is only a minor illness, Remco and our team have decided that having had an extended period at an altitude camp, it would be better that he does not start what will be a competitive and demanding race and avoids risking further disruption to his preparations for the forthcoming Tour de France and Olympic Games.”

Evenepoel also expressed his disappointment, saying: “I am upset to not be at the Belgian Championships. Winning the race last year and wearing the famous Belgian tricolor jersey has been a great honor for me and it would have been a privilege to try to defend the jersey I love so much. And while I am not very sick, I would not be able to race at 100% of my capabilities, which is what a race this important demands, and we think that it is better that I don’t take any risks so close to the Tour de France. I wish my teammates good luck in the race and hopefully we can keep that beautiful jersey in the team!”

Remco Evenepoel
Evenepoel does not want to take any risks before the Tour de France. © Profimedia

They did not. The race was won in a spring by Lotto-Dstny’s Arnaud de Lie, with Soudal’s Tim Merlier finishing sixth.

Presumably, the setback has not compromised Evenepoel’s form for the Tour. Or has it? His boss at Soudal–Quick Step, Patrick Lefevere, recently dialed down expectations for his leader in the Tour. In Het Nieuwsblad‘s Grand Tour preview, Lefevere said that Evenepoel was repeatedly tested for COVID-19 – presumably because he showed symptoms – during the Critérium du Dauphiné, in which he finished a disappointing seventh, 2:25 behind the winner, Roglič. He tested negative each time, unlike David Gaudu, who had to abandon the race.

According to Evenepoel, the problem was caused by his allergies, apparently to the rugs in his hotel room. Lefevere said that could pose a problem in the Tour. “The accommodations in France, well… There are hotels where you shouldn’t look under the bed or you won’t sleep,” he said. “If you drop your suitcase, dust flies up.”

The Soudal–Quick Step boss cited another problem that could affect his rider’s chances in the Tour, his weight. “Remco has the disadvantage that you can see it immediately in his face,” he said. “It’s just one kilo, but it matters in the mountains. Weight has become so crucial…. Our doctor, Yvan Vanmol, has been saying his entire career, fat doesn’t ride fast.”

This is the key issue for the Belgian world ITT champion, and one that may keep him from ever winning the Tour. To win the big mountain stages, you have to be small and thin, like his three rivals. Vingegaard, for example, stands 1.75m and weighs 60kg, making for a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 19.6. Evenepoel is 1.71m at 61kg, for a BMI of 20.9.

That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but on the slopes of the Plateau de Beille (15.8km @ 7.9%), the summit finish that concludes a stage (the 15th) with some 5,000m of climbing over nearly 200km of racing, that little bit of extra body mass can feel like a ton.

Evenepoel is a marvelous cyclist, but it sounds as if Lefevere has already tossed in the towel for his combatant. But, like many teams focusing on the GC, Soudal is likely not taking a sprinter to the Tour. “That’s the case with GC teams: No one takes a sprinter anymore,” Lefevere said. “I talked about it within the team this morning. I understand the logic of focusing entirely on the GC, but it’s against my nature. If we haven’t won a stage in the first week of the Tour, I get annoyed. And I’ll quickly say it myself: more annoyed than usual.”

But Lefevere knows that Evenepoel would be the solution to that problem if he falters early in the Tour. In that case, he would be going for stage wins – at which he is one of the best in the world. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.