One of the great intrigues of cycling is speculating how a rider or a team will fare in a Grand Tour, if they can really control a three-week race and handle the pressure that comes with it.
There were a lot of doubts before the Vuelta a España as to whether Remco Evenepoel was capable of truly challenging for the red jersey, and if his Quick-Step Alpa Vinyl team were up to the job of not just protecting him but taking the race on.
As the race enjoys its second rest day, both Evenepoel and his team can give themselves a well-earned pat on the back for they have surpassed not just expectations but also ambitions, with Evenepoel holding a comfortable lead at the top of the general classification and likely to extend it in Tuesday’s 31km time trial.
One of his key domestiques, Ilan van Wilder, admitted that while he knew Evenepoel “was always strong, once again he surprised me again today,” referencing his outstanding performance on stage nine when he put significant time into his GC rivals on a brutally steep finishing climb.
“On such a steep climb as well,” Van Wilder added. “People said he cannot do steep climbs – I think today those people have shut up.”
In all the mountain stages so far, Evenepoel has been marshalled through the parcours by his committed team, with Fausto Masnada, Van Wilder and world champion Julian Alaphilippe in particular setting a high pace that has reduced the size of the leading group and provided a platform for Evenepoel to attack from.
They have answered questions emphatically as to whether they can take on the might of Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers. “I think we have a really strong team and again we have achieved a good goal,” Van Wilder added.
“Today [stage nine] was really difficult for us, especially in the start because everyone seemed to attack us. They were putting the pressure on us but we stayed calm, controlled the race and like yesterday we put Remco in a top three position at the bottom of the final climb and then it was up to the GC guys.”
Alaphilippe deserves special credit, the Frenchman pulling seriously impressive turns at the front. “I was actually suffering in his wheel,” Van Wilder adds. “To see the world champion riding like that after such a difficult period for him, it’s amazing.”
It was obvious from the moment the Vuelta’s parcours were revealed that the first half of the race lent itself more to Evenepoel, rather than the second half that has longer climbs that rise to a higher altitude. “These are difficult days, so here we needed to take as much advantage as possible,” Van Wilder said.
“I think you take what you can take. He is feeling good now, we are helping him. There is a time trial coming up, I know he already did a recon of it, and he will take some time there I also think. It’s up to us to stay calm, and to support him as best as possible, like we did yesterday and today.”