Remco Evenepoel has fast been running out of rivals at this Vuelta a España, and he reached the midpoint of the race on Wednesday with only one man still within three minutes of his overall lead. By now, the question isn’t so much who can prevent Evenepoel from winning in Madrid as what.
Crashes, coronavirus and calor are the obvious occupational hazards at this race, and all three were in evidence on stage 11, which brought the peloton on the sweltering road south from the ElPozo meat plant in Murcia to the wild headland of Cabo de Gato on the Andalusian coast.
The Vuelta has run smoothly for Evenepoel to this point, but the first real bump in the road came 64km from the finish, when his QuickStep-AlphaVinyl teammate Julian Alaphilippe crashed on a left-hand bend. Evenepoel was perched several places ahead of Alaphilippe and thus avoided the crash, which left the world champion with a suspected broken collarbone.
“I was riding in front of him, I don’t know anything of what happened,” said Evenepoel. “He’s definitely a big loss for our team, and especially on such a quiet stage, it’s quite a pity. I hope he’s doing well and that he’s not suffering too much.”
Illness and injury meant that Alaphilippe has endured a star-crossed second season in the rainbow jersey, but he looked to be building a head of steam on this Vuelta in the service of Evenepoel, delivering striking cameos before the summit finishes at Pico Jano, Colláu Fancuaya and Les Praeres last week.
Although Evenepoel can still count on Ilan Van Wilder, Fausto Masnada and Louis Vervaeke when the road climbs, the loss of Alaphilippe is a significant one. His supporting cast is now down to five riders after Pieter Serry left the race with COVID-19 on Sunday.
“It definitely makes it a less beautiful day than we expected,” Evenepoel said in his television interview after the podium ceremony. If the bike racing doesn’t work out, then a career as a spin doctor awaits. When he spoke to the written press half an hour later, mind, Evenepoel described the loss of Alaphilippe in slightly less varnished terms.
“I think what should have been a quiet and nice day for us turned out to be a pretty bad day,” he conceded. “But we’re not going to lose our focus because of that, I think we’re not the only team losing guys. We’ll try to stay positive even though it was a bad day for us today.”
In another sense, of course, Evenepoel will be glad to stay negative. The day began with news of five more confirmed COVID-19 cases on the Vuelta, with Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) and Pavel Sivakov (Ineos) among those to leave the race. The coronavirus has now forced 21 riders to abandon the Vuelta.
Before the start, Evenepoel had called for the Vuelta to limit crowds at stage finishes, and the race organisation, predictably, responded only by imposing greater restrictions on journalists covering the race. On Wednesday evening, Evenepoel outlined the measures his QuickStep-AlphaVinyl team have been taking to maintain their bubble.
“During a Grand Tour, the usual thing is to have the family visit on the rest day, and we banned that,” Evenepoel said. “It’s really our team bubble: wearing masks on the bus, out of the bus, during the massage, we’re cleaning and disinfecting the hands. The only moment we don’t wear masks is when we get the official whistle for the start and at the table to eat our food. It’s probably good to be without the mask when you want to eat something.”
After the Vuelta’s opening stanzas in the cooler climes of the Netherlands and Spain’s green northwest, the peloton has encountered oppressive humidity since making the long transfer south on the second rest day. The temperature will continue to rise on Thursday afternoon, when Evenepoel faces the stage 12 summit finish at Peñas Blancas.
Andalusia is, in every respect, very far removed from Evenepoel’s hometown of Schepdaal. To prepare for this Vuelta, he opted to decamp from the flatlands west of Brussels to the Costa Blanca in August, precisely because of its combination of soaring heat and searing slopes.
“I think the heat is for everybody: some guys are a bit used to it, some aren’t,” said Evenepoel. “That’s why I actually didn’t want to race ahead of the Vuelta, I preferred to go on a long training camp around the area of Denia and Calpe, where I never had a day under 40 degrees.
“It was super-hot, very humid and there were steep climbs, which are the hardest to deal with it in the heat. But with this heat, I think it can be an advantage that the climbs aren’t really steep any more in the next weeks.”