It’s been the week of thrilling mountain showdowns between Primož Roglič and Remco Evenepoel at the Volta a Catalunya, and after four closely-fought battles it’s the Slovenian who holds a narrow 2-1 advantage over the Belgian six weeks out from the Giro d’Italia.
Ask Roglič who is on top, and he will indicate it is him. “I am on my way of coming back [from an injury sustained at last year’s Vuelta a España] and for now, everything is going nicely. Details always decide and today [stage five] I won.”
Ask Evenepoel the same question, and he’ll big himself up. “If everything went well, without any mistakes, I could have won three stages back-to-back-to-back,” he said.
The general classification rivalry between the pair has developed into cycling’s most exciting, ever since they first began to trade blows at last April’s Tour of the Basque Country, a race in which they both held the leader’s jersey only to eventually see Dani Martínez snatch it away from each of them; then, at the Vuelta, Evenepoel was dominant in the opening week, but Roglič looked to be on his way back before his stage 16 crash.
Across 28 race days in the past 12 months – curiously all in Spain – Roglič has come out on top 16 times to Evenepoel’s 12. The next confrontation, the Giro, is set to be the most anticipated yet – and the younger of the duo wants the eldest to be fully aware that he still has plenty of margin for improvement in the ensuing six weeks.
“I still have some percentages to become better,” Evenepoel said pointedly, his rival happening to be just a metre behind him and within earshot. “I really feel that I am not at my very best yet. There’s still a month-and-a-half to go until the Giro.”
They are both conscious of the enormity of their heavyweight tussle. “It was another fun battle at the finish,” Roglič said when dissecting his stage five win. “La Molina [on stage three that Evenepoel won] was a bit short. I was missing a bit of a kick and the legs, but here I had it. It was enough today.”
A short while afterwards, Evenepoel looked dejected when he was presented as the leader of the young classification, a contrasting scene to that of Roglič who played theatrics as he jumped, danced and celebrated.
“I think we can be happy,” Evenepoel said, his initial frustration having resided. “We did the race we had to do, we tried to get rid of him but of course he is Primož Roglič. In my eyes he is the best GC guy of the past years, he has had so many podiums in Grand Tours, he won the Vuelta back-to-back-to-back. He is my idol. It is a pleasure to race with him.”
Roglič was just as kind, refusing to bite a loaded question when asked about Evenepoel’s sprinting tactics. “He doesn’t need to show us he is super,” he said. “He is one of the best guys in the world.”
Niceties aside, they are sizing each other up. “Definitely they look at each other. For sure,” Robert Gesink, Roglič’s long-time lieutenant, said: “They are looking for weaknesses towards the big goal of the Giro.” Have they found Evenepoel’s? “We’re still looking,” he laughed.
The man himself knows his, and he’s learned them from watching his adversary get the better of him twice in five days. “He is a guy I can learn a lot from,” Evenepoel said.
“He could answer every attack [on stage five]. Then he attacked with 500m to go, he slowed the pace down, I tried to counter him but that wasn’t the smartest move because he was trying to make me go too early. That was my biggest mistake. What he did in the last 600 to 700 metres today I will take with me into the future.”
The Giro is set to be three intense weeks. Catalunya has proven that separating them is no easy task. One takes a few seconds, only to cede the advantage a day later. It’s tit for tat. It’s cycling’s best current head-to-head GC rivalry.
Once the Volta finishes in Barcelona on Sunday – Roglič has a 10 second lead ahead of the final two days – they will each head to altitude training before next locking horns at the Giro’s opening 18.4km time trial on May 6. “I think we’re about on the same level,” Evenepoel said, but you just knew that he didn’t really fully believe the words that came out of his mouth.
He thinks he’s on pole. So too does Roglič. “I just have to look at myself,” he smiled, confidence oozing with every one of his few words. “I’m enjoying it.” We all are.