Evenepoel 'not playing mind games' in taking Giro d'Italia time bonus
Remco Evenepoel, so the assumed logic goes, will look to farm out his maglia rosa to a suitable home in the coming days of the Giro d'Italia, perhaps as soon as Tuesday's rugged run to Lago Laceno.
Then again, it's never wise to make too many assumptions about the Belgian. He certainly didn't look like a man in a hurry to hand over the garment when he lifted himself almost languidly from the saddle and sprinted for the bonus seconds on offer a shade over 10km before the finish of stage 3 in Melfi.
The roads through the hills beneath the extinct volcano of Mount Vulture were rendered treacherous by spitting rain throughout the afternoon, and Evenepoel's Soudal-QuickStep guard had been to the fore on the day's short, classified climbs in the finale.
Giro d'Italia: Michael Matthews claims stage 3 in uphill sprint
Remco Evenepoel flies across time trial course for victory and first maglia rosa
Subscribe to Cyclingnews for the comprehensive Giro d'Italia experience so you'll never miss a moment of our coverage
Approaching the late intermediate sprint at Rapolla, however, word crackled over their earpieces that Primoz Roglič was now circling behind them with intent. Koen Bouwman duly led out the sprint for his Jumbo-Visma leader, but Evenepoel had been forewarned. He accelerated past Roglič to pick up the maximum three bonus seconds on offer, while the Slovenian had to settle for second place and two bonus seconds.
"We knew there was going to be bonifications, and when they put it so close to the finish line, it's obvious the bunch will go for it," said Evenepoel said, who is now 32 seconds clear of João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates), with Roglič 44 seconds down in third place overall.
"We initially didn't want to go for it, but over the radio, they told us that Jumbo were behind us. I was just reacting to them, but in the end, I won, and it didn't cost a lot of energy. It's better to take time than to lose time."
In the grand scheme of things, the seconds themselves count for little, but the very act of beating Roglič in the sprint might be of greater significance for Evenepoel, who prevented his rival from feeding on even a morsel of momentum after a trying start to this Giro.
Given how Roglič's ability to collect bonus seconds helped to tip the balance in their duel at the Volta a Catalunya in March, this certainly had the feel of a useful psychological victory for Evenepoel, even if he looked to downplay the idea.
"I don't know," he said. "I mean, it's not in my head to play that mind game. If they go for it, you have to follow. I cannot give away three seconds for free. I tried to ride as fast as possible on Saturday for a reason, so it would be stupid to let other GC guys take seconds, especially when it doesn't cost too much energy. It's a situation where you react in the moment itself and not with any thought behind it."
Since taking the maglia rosa with his exhibition on Saturday in Ortona, Evenepoel has pointed to how the daily post-stage duties of the race leader – podium ceremony, mixed zone interviews, press conference and doping control – eat into his recovery time each evening. He cut a relaxed figure when he took a seat in the press conference truck in Melfi, however, poking fun at his press officer's footballing allegiances and revisiting the moment Astana's Simone Velasco had jovially but puzzlingly placed an egg in his back pocket early in the stage.
"I don't know what happened, it was probably an Italian joke," Evenepoel smiled. "Now I regret I didn't test on his helmet to see if it was cooked or not..."
More serious business awaits on Tuesday, as the Giro has its first taste of the mountains with a trek through the Apennines to Lago Laceno, a stage Evenepoel reconnoitered in the depths of last winter. The final ascent of Colle Molella is followed by a 3km plateau to the finish, a finale that produced fireworks when Alex Zülle won in 1998 and again when Domenico Pozzovivo soloed clear in 2012.
"The thing is, the top comes with 3 or 4km to go, so it's not a proper mountaintop finish," Evenepoel said. "Only the last 2km is super steep. I like it, but of course, some other light riders will like it too. You might get in trouble already, so you need to be fresh and ready for some high powers."
Evenepoel played a straight bat, however, when asked if he planned to be back in the press conference truck on Tuesday evening after a stage that offers ample opportunity for a breakaway to stay clear, regardless of the GC skirmish behind.
"As for giving away the jersey, we will see," Evenepoel said. "It depends on the race situation and on who will be in the break tomorrow, and whether a team wants to ride for a stage win. There is a possibility tomorrow I'm not in pink, and there's a possibility that I am. It's fifty-fifty, I think."