Worries ease for injured Remco Evenepoel after trouble-free Giro d'Italia stage 6
As Giro d'Italia contender Remco Evenepoel glided to a halt a few hundred metres after the finish of Naples, within seconds a small knot of reporters and TV had gathered around the World Champion and a protective circle of Soudal-QuickStep staff, eager to gather the first words of the Belgian after the first key test of any lasting effect of his stage 5 injuries.
The omens had been almost scarily good throughout the 162-kilometre stage through the hills surrounding Naples then back down to the seaport. Evenepoel had briefly messed around with a football, in a double nod to his sporting past and the Naples football club's historic recent league success, at the signing-on podium. Then during the entire, incident-free, stage, he never seemed to be in trouble.
The words of Soudal-QuickStep doctor Toon Cruyt after Evenepoel's double crash on stage 5 that he would face a difficult day on stage 6 were hard to forget, even if Cruyt was notably more optimistic on Thursday morning following the Belgian's progress overnight.
Giro d'Italia: Remco Evenepoel ready to suffer through 'back pain and big bruises'
Eyewitness: Remco Evenepoel's dog day afternoon at the Giro d'Italia
Dog sparks Remco Evenepoel crash at Giro d'Italia - Video
Subscribe to Cyclingnews for our best Giro d'Italia coverage
As the sun beamed down on the finish on Naples seafront, you could almost sense a collective holding of breath before the Belgian gave his definitive verdict on his first day back from the brink.
When it came after Evenepoel had first swigged from a recovery drink and briefly negotiated with one TV reporter whether he would talk immediately or later at the team bus, it was a fairly resounding thumbs-up. Evenepoel is ready to battle on.
"It was a fast stage, but the team did a very good job, I was able to get home safely, and I was always on the front on the descents. So that's great, eh?" Evenepoel said.
"My leg was stiff, but I didn't get dropped. That's good," he said with a laugh afterwards.
Fears of what could happen on the second day after a crash, traditionally considered to be the worst, had been allayed somewhat by Cruyt's comments on Thursday morning that "Usually the first two days are important but if he passes well today, I think he'll be OK for tomorrow.".
"Often the second the second day is the worst but it's often also a mental thing," the doctor had said. "Remco doesn't have this mental problem. 10 minutes after his crash, he was ready to fight again."
Evenepoel himself was even more categorical after the stage 6 finish, saying that he is sure that he will be ok for Friday's monster mountain stage, which concludes on the summit of the Gran Sasso after 26 kilometres of climbing.
"It [the bad second post-crash day] will not come. It'll be OK. I have much less pain and it's not internal," Evenepoel concluded. "I had a good ride today."
And with that, he picked his way through the journalists and onto a welcome shower at the team bus.
Although more journalists were crowding around the half-dozen or so Soudal-QuickStep vehicles in the teams' area a few hundred metres further down the boulevard, there was a perceptible sense of business as usual as mechanics stowed away bikes and equipment and the riders themselves stayed stowed on the bus.
Then after less than an hour, there was yet another encouraging sign for Evenepoel fans when the World Champion emerged in post-race team gear. Despite a plan to make a quick getaway to the team hotel for maximum recovery time, he was happy to delay his daily exit from the Giro stage for photos with Oleg Tinkov, the former cycling team owner and businessman who dropped by for a photo and a few words of encouragement for the Belgian. Tinkov told reporters that Evenepoel is his favourite bike rider in the current peloton, then draped his arm around the Belgian star for a quick picture for the media.
Whether Evenepoel will imitate Tinkov's former team leader Alberto Contador and complete the Giro d'Italia in pink as the Spaniard did in 2015 remains to be seen. But as a step away from fears that his injuries could have a lasting effect on his 2023 Giro d'Italia, Evenepoel's ride on stage 6 through the hills of Naples was hardly a bad one.