Nearly 14 months on from his horror crash in the last edition, Remco Evenepoel returns to Il Lombardia as one of the favourites, the young Belgian rider up against tough opposition from the likes of Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar, while his own team-mate Julian Alaphilippe could instead provide Deceuninck - Quick-Step with the best chance of victory in the final Monument of the season.
"We are going to have a spectacular race,” Evenepoel said, the prospect of a number of big guns on the starting line a mouthwatering prospect for fans.
“Will I attack early again?" he queried, having been on the offensive early in the Flanders World Championships road race. "Maybe, but on a course like today, you can kill yourself. It's very heavy. We have to wait for the race. If a team is going to attack on the first climb, it will be a long race. You then have to assess the situation. It's too easy to plan ahead. You have to feel a direction. We know Primož Roglič is the top favourite, but every race has to be driven. The strongest will win here."
In his Monument debut at the Italian one-day race last year, Evenepoel crashed over a bridge on a descent, suffering multiple injuries including a pelvis fracture and a contusion to his right lung.
" It's special to be back here," Evenepoel said, reflecting on his crash and the journey back to full fitness. "I had some healthy stress this morning. My trust [in my legs]? I'm not blown away, I'm going to wait and see how it goes on the first climbs. The weather is also going to creep in.”
As one of Belgium's biggest stars, not just in cycling but in sport, the pressure and scrutiny poured on Evenepoel can be overwhelming, the fallout from the Worlds road race has dominated the headlines in recent weeks, with Roglič saying he feels sorry for the Belgian riders and what they have to go through.
More worryingly, Remco's father Patrick has revealed to Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad that the family has received threats in the post in the past year.
“It has been a tough year," Patrick said of a 14 months where his son has had to fight back to full health. "After the Games we even received threatening letters. My wife and I have often looked at each other: 'What are we doing?'”
While the likes of 31-year-old Primož Roglič and 29-year-old Julian Alaphilippe will surely be retired from the sport when the young Evenepoel reaches their age, the Belgian has a likely rival for years to come in the form of two-time Tour champion, Tadej Pogačar.
So far the pair have only raced against each other eight times, today's Lombardia being the ninth, but the Slovenian is under no illusion that in Evenepoel he will have a worthy opponent for years to come.
"Remco and I will often meet," Pogačar told Het Nieuwsblad. “Evenepoel provides the show anytime, anywhere.”
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