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Just three years ago Remco Evenepoel was on the books at Belgian football club Anderlecht and had already played four times for the national under-15s. Today he is one of the brightest and most exciting talents in world cycling.
"A phenomena," is how Alex Dowsett described the 19-year-old at last year's world time trial championships after Evenepoel had finished second to Rohan Dennis to claim silver in Harrogate.
As if winning silver at the world championships was not impressive enough, the Deceuninck-Quick Step rider also won the European title, the Belgium Tour and the hilly one-day Clásica San Sebastián. And all this as a first-year professional. Evenepoel was indeed a phenom.
After making waves in the junior ranks in 2018, Evenepoel announced himself to the world in Innsbruck where he blew away the under-18 fields in both the world championship time trial and road races. The media in his cycling-obsessed homeland wasted little time in comparing him to the greatest of all time. Evenepoel, however, was having none of it.
"Being the new Eddy Merckx is not something I want to hear," he told reporters after winning his second rainbow jersey in Austria. "I want to be somebody new. I’m the new me".
Just 15 months later and Evenepoel is sat on the 29th floor of a hotel in Calpe, Spain, surrounded by a huddle of journalists from around the world. With a calm assurance that belies his tender years, the teenager answers a battery of questions with the wit and warmth of a seasoned professional. Evenepoel turns 20 on the eve of his first race of the season, the Vuelta a San Juan on Jan 26. Reflecting on his first year as a professional, he admitted 2019 had been a steep learning curve, but one he relished.
“I suffered a lot during the early months, but in the end you learn a lot. There were really big results and I was really happy with them – I never expected them, the people never expected them and also the team – they really didn't expect what happened last year.
“It's a hard lifestyle, but it’s the same for Julian [Alaphilippe], for Pieter Serry, for everybody. We like to be on the bike, we like to suffer, we love the pain that we feel during the races and during training. It's hard work and we like it.
“I think the San Sebastián victory and and my European time trial title, and the second place in the worlds, really changed my life and my career a lot. Because of those results the team feels I'm ready to go to a bigger, bigger level of racing – for example the Giro.”
And it is at the Giro d'Italia where Evenepoel hopes to “to learn and improve”, but not before having a crack at Liège-Bastogne-Liège – a race Merckx won five times during his career – during the first of three parts of the season in which he hopes to reach top form.
“I'm not going to talk about winning, I don't like to talk about winning. I'm just going to prepare myself the best possible, try to be in the best shape, and then we will see. I think I'm quite ready for starting the season and we'll see what it will bring,” Evenepoel says. “I have three peak moments, and the first one will be Liège and the Giro, then we have the Olympics and after we will have the worlds and Il Lombardia.
“The Tour de France was too close before the Olympics and the Vuelta [a España] was too soon afterwards, I would have been empty. Only the Giro fitted. But it was the team who decided to put me in there, not me. They think I’m ready to make my grand tour debut and that’s good for me, because it gives me a lot of motivation. They proposed it to me, and I said, yes, I’ll do it.”
The prospect of Evenepoel taking the maglia rosa on the opening day of the Giro when he will be just 46 days older than the youngest ever holder of the leader's pink jersey at the Giro – the late Italian rider Nino Defilippis – is very real. Though to take the jersey he may have to beat Australian world time trial champion Dennis, who is expected to ride the Giro with his new team Ineos.
“We never know about the result but [wearing pink] would change my life totally I think. I will race Tirreno-Adriatico, so after that we can try to look for the time trial circuit, probably only the long one because Budapest is too far. I know there are some other riders, I don't know how many starting at the Giro, but I have one chance.”
Following a short post-Giro break, Evenepoel will start his preparations for the Olympics, a long-term goal for the Belgian.
“Just the fact that I can be at the Olympics already is a big thing, and is really is an honour to just represent my country in the time trial and the road race. It's really ... it's crazy. It's just amazing, a dream. Even as a soccer player you want to go to the Olympics once as a sportsman so now it becomes true it's, it's nice. I go [to Japan] two weeks before the race to adapt to the climate and the weather. And then in this period I will go to check the courses.”
Whatever happens on the road, the effervescent Evenepoel is certain of one thing: he will never change his style of racing.
“I'm still gonna be attacking," he says before admitting he may not be going on any long-range sorties, as he did at last year's Deutschland Tour. “I cannot do an attack like this one anymore, 100km to go – or even more, 110km almost alone. I don't think that's going to be my racing style anymore.
“If you want to win you have to attack so I'm not gonna stop attacking.”