Since September 2018, when the young Belgian Remco Evenepoel dominated the junior world championships in Innsbruck in spectacular style, the world of professional cycling has spoken of him in the same breath as the nonpareil Eddy Merckx, whose successor has been awaited for the last 45 years. Evenepoel has expressed frustration at being likened to the legendary “Cannibal”, but on the evidence of the first half of this year’s Giro d’Italia, there is no exaggeration involved.
When the race paused for breath in Umbria on Tuesday, Evenepoel lay second overall, just 14 seconds behind one of the big favourites for overall victory, the Team Ineos leader, Egan Bernal, winner of the 2019 Tour de France. In the first 10 days, the Belgian had barely put a foot wrong; a minor positioning issue close to the first major mountain top finish on Sunday was relatively small beer, and his determination was clearly visible when during Monday’s stage he scrapped for a time bonus with Bernal, gaining a single second.
This would have been remarkable for any cyclist of 21 in his first Grand Tour, but Evenepoel arrived at the Giro having not raced since his dramatic crash in the Tour of Lombardy in 2020. A complication with his broken pelvis meant the start to his season was delayed, and he had no chance to race before arriving at last Saturday’s start in Turin. “It’s crazy to be here with the best guys after a small three month’s training, and six months of nothing,” he said in his press conference on Tuesday.
Crazy, perhaps, but also liberating. Everything in this race seems to be a bonus for the former footballer, once a member of the Anderlecht and PSV Eindhoven youth squads. “I don’t feel any pressure, I’m just happy to race again,” he said. It’s also part of a pattern. Since turning professional at just 19, Evenepoel has constantly defied his youth. In 2019, he won a Classic, San Sebastián, and the Tour of Belgium, then he landed the silver medal in the time trial world championship. In 2020, prior to his crash in Lombardy, he had taken the overall title in all four of the stage races he had contested that season.
On Tuesday’s rest day, in between answering questions in fluent French and English as well as his native Flemish, Evenepoel stumbled only once, when he was asked if he thought he could win this Giro. “That’s a difficult question. Er … If I didn’t believe in myself, I wouldn’t be at the start. That’s not a yes, not a no. Maybe.” On paper, he can be expected to crack on one of the series of massive mountains that the race begins to climb on Saturday, with the super-steep finish at Monte Zoncolan; he acknowledged that he may be in a very different position at the race’s next rest day on 25 May, but even so, he has already laid down a marker for the future.
As Evenepoel and Bernal have entered the limelight, so other favourites have slipped off stage. Last year’s runner-up Jai Hindley is a shadow of his 2020 self. The Basque Country’s eternal hopeful Mikel Landa was forced out on stage five with broken ribs and collarbone. The same stage left Ineos’s putative No 2 Pavel Sivakov in hospital as well. Last year’s fourth-placed finisher, João Almeida of Portugal, cracked on day four and is unlikely to challenge overall.
Behind the youthful twosome the field remains closely packed, with 16 riders spanned by two minutes. The big race favourite Simon Yates has been quiet, but remains in touch just 56 seconds behind Bernal in ninth, while Hugh Carthy lies sixth, 45 seconds back. There are perhaps 10 men who might hope that with good form and a fair wind, victory might come their way, although Wednesday’s stage over the dirt roads of Tuscany could eliminate any number.
“It will be difficult to gain time, but easy to lose time,” was Evenepoel’s verdict. His team mechanics dissuaded their young leader from reconnoitring the dirt tracks on Tuesday – apparently they felt they would have enough bike cleaning to do on Wednesday night without increasing their workload – but the strade bianche have a fearsome reputation. The last time the Giro went that way, in 2010, the upshot was one of the most dramatic days in the race’s history.