World champion Remco Evenepoel has played down his prospects of victory as he gets his 2023 campaign under way at the week-long Vuelta a San Juan on Sunday.
Overall winner of the Argentinian event in 2020, the 22-year-old Soudal-QuickStep leader has said that his main focus will be on supporting teammate Fabio Jakobsen in the bunch finishes that are expected to dominate the seven-stage race.
“Within the team, we think that six of the seven stages could finish in a sprint,” the 22-year-old Belgian told L’Équipe. “My task will be to ride at the front of the peloton from five kilometres out from the finish up to the flamme rouge [with a kilometre to go]. That gives me the chance to do some intense efforts and to work for the team.”
Prior to the race, Evenepoel has spent the best part of a fortnight in western Argentina, taking advantage of the hot summer weather to do some long training sorties. “Last winter, I don’t think I did any six-hour sessions before the new season but I’ve done two or three outings of that nature in recent weeks,” he said, adding that this has been part of his longer-term preparation for the Giro d’Italia, his principle objective this season.
The Belgian, who played football at youth level for Belgium, had been warmly embraced by the Argentine fans, who are still in celebratory mood after their team’s victory in the World Cup last month.
On transit through the country’s capital, Buenos Aires, Evenepoel was invited to give the ceremonial kick-off at a friendly game between Boca Juniors and Chilean team Everton at the famous Bombonera stadium, where he was presented with a Boca shirt bearing his name.
“I knew that I was going to attract attention with the rainbow jersey, but I didn’t think it would be to this degree,” the young Belgian confessed.
Pressed for his thoughts on the World Cup Final match-up between Argentina and France, he responded diplomatically: “I was neutral during the final because it was a contest between two exceptional players that I like a lot: [Lionel] Messi and [Kylian] Mbappé. The Argentine has made his mark on the history of this sport, but I think the Frenchman is going to be his successor.”
Evenepoel’s main hope of success at San Juan will be the mountainous fifth stage. It finishes at the 2,623-metre summit of the Alto del Colorado, which rises for 18.8km at an average of 4.4%.
This should scatter the sprinters and bring some significant GC hitters to the fore, including Ineos’s Egan Bernal and Dani Martínez, Bora’s Sergio Higuita and this trio’s fellow Colombian Miguel Ángel López, who was released from his contract with Astana in December and is now riding for the third division Medellín-EPM team.
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