Remco Evenepoel isn’t doing himself any favours
It’s been a month now since the Road World Championships wrapped up, but in the host nation of Belgium, the fallout continues.
The Belgians came into the elite men’s road race with multiple contenders and the weight of an expectant nation on their shoulders. By many people’s reckoning, Wout van Aert was the rider to beat. The team’s failure to medal has reverberated around the cycling-mad nation ever since. And at the heart of the discussion lies 21-year-old wunderkind Remco Evenepoel, castigated for simultaneously doing too much at Worlds, and also not enough.
In an interview with Het Nieuwsblad this week, Evenepoel’s Worlds teammate Jasper Stuyven was critical of how Evenepoel handled himself both in the race, and in the media afterwards. And Stuvyen’s comments are just the latest in a series of criticisms directed at Evenepoel via the Belgian media in recent months.
It all started when the sport’s greatest-ever, Eddy Merckx, took aim at Evenepoel’s approach to the Olympic road race back in July.
Evenepoel had lined up in Tokyo as Belgium’s co-leader with Van Aert. With roughly 50 km and the race’s hardest climb remaining, Evenepoel went on the attack, before ultimately fading out of contention, leaving him unable to support Van Aert in the crucial moments that followed. Evenepoel himself admitted later that he shouldn’t have attacked when he did, saying “I think that it’s not the smartest attack I’ve done in my life”.
As Worlds approached, the ever-vocal Merckx voiced his concern with Evenepoel’s ride, and what it meant for the Belgian Worlds team. “If there is only one leader, you really shouldn’t take Evenepoel,” Merckx told Het Nieuwsblad. “He rides mainly for himself; we saw that at the Olympics.”
Evenepoel was defiant in response.
“I’m here to work for Belgium, for Wout, because I know that it’s the chance of his life to be world champion,” Evenepoel said at the Belgian team’s pre-Worlds press conference. “He’s in the form of his life, and it would be stupid of me to ride for myself.
“On this parcours, no one is stronger than Wout. I said already a lot of times that I will do everything [for] Wout.”
Part of that role, Evenepoel said, was to conserve his energy so he could be of use to Van Aert at the pointy end of the race. But when the race rolled around, Evenepoel took a decidedly different tack. He was on the move early, fighting his way into several breakaways that again left him off the back by the time the most important moves were happening.
“Twice I managed to feature in the breakaway which put Wout and Jasper behind us in a comfortable position,” he said post-race. “Then they bridged up to us from behind which was a perfect scenario. Wout came over to me and asked to set a hard pace towards the Smeysberg which I did.
“I struggled to stay with the group on the climb but I hung on. Then it was up to me to ride flat out and empty myself when riding back towards Leuven. That’s what I did.”
Many praised Evenepoel’s ride, citing it as proof of his willingness to work for others, and proof that Merckx’s post-Olympic criticism had been unfounded. Evenepoel’s own teammates, though, were far less complimentary, not least his team leader Van Aert.
“I did not understand why Remco attacked 180 kilometers from the finish when he had to be at my side with Jasper Stuyven in the final,” Van Aert said the following week.
“It was absolutely not the tactics of the team or the national coach to use Remco so early,” Van Aert told Sporza’s cycling podcast, De Tribune. “He himself chose to attack so early, while that was [a job] for [Yves] Lampaert or [Victor] Campenaerts. Because Remco was at the front, they were never able to carry out their task.”
Which brings us back to Jasper Stuyven and his comments to Het Nieuwsblad this week. As part of a wide-ranging interview about his 2021 season, the Milan-San Remo winner voiced his own frustrations with Evenepoel’s conduct at Worlds.
Stuyven said that a few days after the race – where Stuyven was Belgium’s best finisher with fourth – the men’s road team caught up online for a half-hour debrief. Everyone except Evenepoel.
“He was aware, but didn’t think it was necessary,” Stuyven told Het Nieuwsblad. “I think that is a shame. Especially because he thought it necessary to say things on TV. That has stuck with some of us.
“I think that Remco should sometimes be slowed down by his entourage. He still has to learn when he can and cannot say things. Also a super strong rider – which he certainly is – should realise that some things should remain internal.”
In the days after Worlds, Evenepoel had told Belgian TV show Extra Time Koers that, had team management allowed him the chance, he could have won the rainbow jersey. “The best rider in the race behind [eventual winner Julian] Alaphilippe? It’s hard to say, but I could have become world champion,” Evenepoel said.
Stuyven had a different view. More importantly, he told Het Nieuwsblad, Evenepoel should have taken a different approach at Worlds.
“He should have ridden a different race,” Stuyven said. “What he did – ride full in the early break, gesticulate and be omnipresent until the final started – any ‘sub-topper’ can do. But even if he had spared himself, he would never have ridden away from Alaphilippe.”
In some ways, it’s hard not to empathise with Evenepoel. At 21, he’s still just a young man trying to find his way. Ever since he stepped up to the pro ranks at 18, he’s been one of the most followed and scrutinised riders in the sport, thanks largely to a highly critical Belgian cycling media that seems both desperate for Evenepoel to become “the next Eddy Merckx”, and willing to criticise him at every turn. Being in Evenepoel’s shoes would truly be exhausting.
And it’s not hard to understand why he races like he does. He’s been winning bike races as long as he’s been racing, and audacious, often long-range, solo moves are how he’s won many of them. Perhaps that’s why he continues to ride so aggressively, even when such aggression isn’t what’s required or what’s been asked of him. Maybe that and youthful exuberance.
His ride at the Olympics? The one that prompted Merckx’s comments? Who knows – on another day, maybe that attack sticks and Evenepoel is Olympic champion.
But even if we’re sympathetic to Evenepoel, it’s clear he could be doing more to help his own cause. His talent is beyond question. He’s a proven winner who will win a lot more before his career is over. But part of being a champion is commanding the respect of those around you, especially those on your own team. That’s doubly true in road cycling where the support of others is a vital ingredient in an individual’s success. At Worlds alone, Evenepoel seemingly rode against team orders, angered his teammates, and then skipped a debrief that all his teammates were at. Not ideal.
While Evenepoel doesn’t race on the same team as Van Aert and Stuyven during the regular season, they will surely ride for Belgium again together. It’s clear that Evenepoel has some work to do to regain the respect of both riders, and perhaps others, both in how he races, and how he handles himself off the bike.
While he won’t have enjoyed Van Aert and Stuyven criticising him in the media, hopefully Evenepoel has learnt something from the whole ordeal. Hopefully he’s working to repair those relationships. And with any luck, by the time 2022 rolls around, we’ll all be back to talking about Evenepoel’s incredible feats on the bike, rather than whether he’s a selfish rider who can’t follow team instructions.