Remco Evenepoel does not particularly want to be at his rest day press conference, the second of this Vuelta a España that he has done so in the red jersey. While last week he was very much in the ascendancy, this time he is mulling over a weekend which saw his advantage drop from 2-41 to 1-34 over Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma).
While he wants to be resting, not chatting to press from across Europe – but mostly Belgium – he is not in a foul mood, joking and being polite. But he doesn’t want to be here. The Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl rider tells the assembled journalists on Zoom that “keeping the press conference as short as possible” is key to his recovery.
“Sleeping, recovering, having a really easy ride, eating well as yesterday took a lot of calories out of the body,” Evenepoel says when asked to explain his Monday plans. “It’s all about refuelling. Yesterday was a burger and fries dinner with some ice cream. Today when I’m done with my obligations I’ll be in bed for the whole afternoon.”
It is hard to understate Remco-mania in Belgium; the press pack at the Vuelta is dominated by those from the Low Countries, and the TV show for the Grand Tour in the country has got longer specially because one of their own is in red.
The last time Belgium won a Grand Tour, Evenepoel was 22 years away from being born. In fact, Johan De Muynck’s victory at the 1978 Giro d’Italia is closer to the founding of The Beatles, to Charles de Gaulle being president of France, to Second Vatican Council than the birth of the current Vuelta leader.
This feels weird for a country that is as cycling mad as Belgium, the country that spawned Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist of all time. It almost goes a little under the radar due to their success in other races, but the lack of a Grand Tour winner for 44 years is a big hole in the country’s palmarés.
Step forward, Remco. 15 stages into this year’s Vuelta, and the 22-year-old remains in the race lead, with just six stages to go.
“It’s true that I know I’d be the first winner of a grand tour for Belgium in a long time,” he says. “We have six days to go, so I don’t want to call myself that already. For the head it’s best to try and stay calm, look at the races day by day, and see what every day brings. As we could see last week, a crash happens before you even know it. We had two big crashes, and unfortunately for Julian [Alaphilippe] he had to abandon, and then for me it was ok, but had some damage to my hips and muscles.
“Never panic, even if I lose some time. Knowing this situation before the Vuelta I would have signed for it, so everything that happens now is extra. A stage win and a top five or top 10 would be a dream for me and so I would go for that now.”
Well, here is the thing. Evenepoel has already won a stage, the time trial last week, imperiously in fact. He is 1-34 over Roglič in second, and there’s a 5-16 gap to Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers) in fifth, and 11-36 back to Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) in 10th. He should really be aiming higher.
While he lost time on both Saturday and Sunday, he has explanations for them both, which seem sound, if impossible to check. The Belgian crashed on stage 12, with the damage to his legs reportedly hampering him on Saturday’s stage 14. Then on Sunday, Enric Mas [Movistar] attacked and gained time, but is still not an immediate threat on GC, unlike Roglič; Evenepoel says that he preferred to let him go and ride to his power.
“The thing with Saturday you cannot compare with Sunday, I had really stiff legs after the crash,” he explains. “I could barely stand up on the pedals, and that’s what you need on steep climbs. Saturday was all the negative things coming together. It wasn’t the best situation, but I think we fought back yesterday, even if I had some troubles in my leg from the crash. Today I have no soreness, so I’m really recovering.”
“For sure Roglič and Mas are both going very well,” Evenepoel adds. “I think Roglič was the strongest of all the GC guys on Saturday, Mas was very strong yesterday. When he attacked I knew I was still quite a bit above him on GC so I didn’t want to go above my own limit.
“Me keeping up my own pace didn’t allow them to ride away. I was scared to go above my limits yesterday, which is why I kept pushing my own power. On such a hard stage the time loss was quite limited. The guy with the best legs will be the best in the mountain stages, there is still a lot of time.”
There is still a lot of time, but there are just two proper mountain stages to come. While the young Belgian should be applauded for his modesty, the race is his to lose.
“Danger is around every corner,” he warns. “I think everyone is getting scared of the roads here in the south of Spain. We’re going slow on the corners because the road is quite slippery. Anything can happen, and we have to be focused 100% every day. We can never think it’s over, not until Sunday evening.”
It is hard to look beyond Primož Roglič as the man who could beat Evenepoel. The Slovenian has won the last three editions, and has come into form through this race, as he has recovered from the crash which took him out of this year’s Tour de France.
This does not daunt Evenepoel, however, who points out that his “only task is to follow him”.
The focus might be on the battle between him and Roglič, but he is keen to open up the contenders, to pass the pressure around.
“The fight for a second place on GC is going to be more open, because they [Roglič and Mas] are only 25 seconds away from each other,” Evenepoel says. “Movistar need the points. It’s not only Primoz, [Miguel Ángel] López was going really strong this weekend, so we’ll see. It’s not just about Jumbo and Roglič but it’s about the whole top five. We’re going in with our own strengths.
“The more stages I can finish in defence mode without time loss the better, and then there will be one big fight on Saturday.”
As for his biggest worry going into the third and final week of this Vuelta, it is not necessarily racing-oriented, but health.
Covid has run through the peloton at this race, and the battle might just be to finish in good health, rather than to put any more time into his rivals.
“It’s going all over in the bunch,” Evenepoel says. “Some guys are riding with Covid. That’s my biggest fear, to not be able to finish the Vuelta because of that or illness. That would be a nightmare.”
There are six days between Remco and his “dream” of finishing in the top five or ten of a Grand Tour, and thus avoiding his nightmare. There are also six days between now and Belgium’s Grand Tour first win of the 21st century, at last. Sporting immortality waits at the end of the tunnel, if the 22-year-old can stay upright, healthy and on Roglič’s wheel. Easy.