“All the riders are free for you to grab for interviews,” says Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s press officer, “but for Remco and Julian they’ll do TV first, then French language interviews, then English. Don’t worry, everyone will get a chance to speak to them.”
The previous year Julian Alaphilippe spent 14 days in the yellow jersey following an already impressive series of spring Classics victories. Remco Evenepoel won Clásica San Sebastián and became European time trial champion, but equally, he’s only 19 years old.
In fact, Alaphilippe is freed from the 29th floor of the hotel in Calpe, Spain, at least an hour before his younger team-mate is. Such is the interest in the young Belgian that bar staff have to move the circle of outwardly-pointing audio recorders and their subject over to the other side of the room so they can begin clearing up. As everyone scurries over so as not to miss a word out of Evenepoel’s mouth, he feigns dipping off to the elevators, jokingly saying goodbye and wishing everyone well, his humour intact after answering the same questions over and over again for nearly three hours.
“Did your life change a lot?” Evenepoel is asked. After all, he was not still sat here last year while the rest of his UCI top-ranked roster escaped back to the quiet of their rooms.
“Yes, not only on the bike but off it too, everything became harder. It became harder…how do I say it, to control everything,” Evenepoel ponders.
“Almost everybody knows how my life is going. So sometimes it’s difficult to be me.”
The teenager is presumably referring to the Belgian tabloid press who pore over his life in a similar fashion to how the British red-tops used to with David Beckham. One story that caused quite the fuss was when Evenepoel and a former girlfriend broke up because the rider was moving to Monaco for his career while she stayed in Belgian for her studies. Photographers and journalists were apparently posted at her house, not necessarily an uncommon phenomenon for celebrities, but not one you would assume extends to professional cyclists.
It’s not all bad, though, as Evenepoel is clearly relishing learning how to get to grips with the increased media attention. By all accounts it will soon become another part of his daily routine if he is to live up to the talent already displayed by his results so far. But for now, he isn’t showing the media-weariness of elder contemporaries who have been through the rigmarole a fair few more times than him.
“[The attention] is also good because you know that people are talking about you because you did something well, or you have good results on the bike, stuff like this,” he adds. “So it’s not bad to be me. But sometimes it’s hard and difficult, but that’s life and I always try to do it with a smile.”
On his hotel balcony before the team presentation in the afternoon, Evenepoel records a video announcing to the world that he will be riding his first-ever Grand Tour in the next few months, the Giro d’Italia.
The 2020 Italian Grand Tour offers up considerable interest this year, with a mountainous Tour de France lacking time trial kilometres and an inconveniently placed Tokyo Olympics warding off some of its normal competitors. A number of talented riders who would usually spend July in France will now focus on the Giro for Grand Tour success in 2020.
The decision that this was the right time for Evenepoel to experience his first three-week stage race will have been influenced by the fact the Giro includes three fairly flat time trials.
A 33.7km course on stage 14 from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene, a final 16.5km risk to GC contenders into Milan on stage 21, but most interestingly for Evenepoel a 9.5km opening race against the clock in Budapest, offering up a first pink jersey to a strong time triallist. Wearing the skinsuit of the European champion, Evenepoel will be highly billed.
“Yeah, I know,” Evenepoel replies when it’s pointed out he’ll be one of the favourites for what would be a first Grand Tour stage win on his debut Grand Tour stage. “There are some other riders as well. I don’t know how many riders start the Giro but I am just one rider with one chance.”
While Evenepoel is keen to measure expectations he will be going out to Italy to recce the stage 14 time trial course. This is not the mentality of a rider looking to just make it to the finish line.
So come on, Remco, have you not even considered the possibility you’ll be pulling on the maglia rosa on May 9?
“Of course. I think we never know about the result but it would change my life totally I think. I don’t know if anybody has worn a leader’s jersey in a Grand Tour at my age.”
Cycling statistician Cillian Kelly reckons Evenepoel is 47 days shy of the record, with Italian Nino Defilippis taking the pink jersey at the 1952 Giro at the age of 20 years and 58 days. Evenepoel, by comparison, will be 20 years and 105 days.
Time trials will be the only area where the Belgian can continue to compete in much the same way as 2019, having also taken silver at the Yorkshire Worlds, but he now expects to be somewhat of a marked man, unable to drift off the front and complete long breakaway victories.
While these solo rides impressed, it was his performance on the biggest stage of all on the Harrogate course in September that won him new-found respect from all sides, as he worked to try and bring team-mate Philippe Gilbert back to the main bunch after a crash.
This is where Evenepoel’s competitive side comes out, he wants people to know it wasn’t his inability to close the gap that forced the pair’s eventual abandon, but that the UCI pulled the cars out from in between the two groups, which the Belgian says never normally happens in races.
“There was a really stupid rule from the UCI that they said we always make barrage, even for a crash, and normally they never do it in a race but in the Worlds every time when we had a puncture or a problem with the bike, they always make barrage and that’s why we didn’t come back,” Evenepoel said.
“When we started again after Phil crashed, the gap was 1-30 and I closed a gap of 1-20, but they just moved the cars and we never came back.”
After showing his maturity as well as respect for a rider whose palmarès he will one day hope to emaluate if not surpass, the likeable duo have been separated, with the older of the former roommates off to Lotto-Soudal to compete against Patrick Lefevere’s squad for major victories.
“He helps me a lot even now,” Evenepoel says of Gilbert. “We still have contact. Like for example I saw a message from him just now asking how the media day was. So stuff like that, it’s really nice when he sends messages like this.
“But now Phil is on another team so he probably won’t help me too much anymore but we’ll still have contact, that will never be lost.”
Philippe Gilbert’s three-year contract with Lotto-Soudal will likely witness the last years of the 37-year-old’s dazzling career. By that time he’ll be nearing 40 and either another contract or retirement will beckon in 2022. Meanwhile, Evenepoel will still be just 21 years old. Who knows what else he’ll have already won by then.